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AI & SciFi: Teaching Writing, history, Technology, Literature, and Ethics

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Issues Part II

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.152.1 - 22.152.13



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Paper Authors


Rebecca A. Bates Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Rebecca A. Bates received the B.S. degree in biomedical engineering from Boston University in 1990, the M.S. degree in electrical engineering from Boston University in 1996 and the Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington in 2004. She also received the M.T.S. degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1993. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Computer Science department at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include speech recognition and understanding as well as engineering education.

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AI & SciFi: Teaching writing, history, technology, literature and ethicsAbstractEngaging students and helping them develop creativity in engineering and science is a challengeand a goal. Our students often come to college with extra-curricular passions that may or maynot be related to technology, but which may be used to build connections with technical material.A frequent passion is video gaming but for many, the connection is to the story of the game. It’snot surprising that many of our students connect to technology through science fiction. Thispaper will describe a course on Artificial Intelligence and Science Fiction. It has been offered asa general education elective, meeting writing-intensive, literature, and ethics categories forundergraduates, and as a graduate course with semester-long projects.Artificial intelligence (AI) presents many complex theoretical, societal and ethical issues thathave historically been examined in works of science fiction. The interplay between sciencefiction from the 1950s to the present and the development of the field of AI can be used to showhow imagination and creativity fueled each other. As a non-AI example, the race to the mooncoincided neatly with the original Star Trek television series. The interchange between creativework and technical development is especially fun to examine in the field of artificial intelligence,where there are many examples ranging from Isaac Asimov stories to Wall-E to intelligentartificial agents within many games.Course goals include 1) presenting students with a fun opportunity to improve their writing, 2)exploring the social impact of the field of AI, 3) preparing students to deal with ethical questionsthat will arise in their professional careers, 4) connecting students to the broader culture of thecommunity, 5) exploring the connections between creativity in arts and in computer science, 6)developing well-spoken advocates for the field, and 7) increasing knowledge of technical content(of course). Technical topics include Turing tests, intelligent agents, artificial senses, problemsolving approaches, game playing, information retrieval, machine translation and robotics.Ethical questions can be grappled with through discussions, reflection papers and longer writingassignments. Examples drawn from fiction and non-fiction course material include: How arerobots treated in Star Wars (by humans?) (by other robots)? How is it different from treatmentof humans? Are the replicants in Blade Runner sentient? Do the human characters think so ornot? When HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, kills members of the crew, who isguilty? The computer or the creator? First however, the class looks at issues of intelligence,sentience and ethical frameworks. Works of fiction are presented in the context of foundationalAI theory and state-of-the-art technical achievements.The paper will describe course materials, both fiction and non-fiction, give assignment examples,describe sample student projects and present student feedback from undergraduate and graduateofferings as well as suggestions for presenting this course in other settings.

Bates, R. A. (2011, June), AI & SciFi: Teaching Writing, history, Technology, Literature, and Ethics Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17433

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