Thursday, 16 June 2016

Why Kids Should Learn about Robotics

Is it important for kids to learn about robotics? Why? Is it a topic that all kids should learn about, or just those who are really interested. Should young kids be taught how robots work or should it be a topic for teenagers?  Let's take a look.

Robotics has been in the news a lot recently. There's lots of concern that robots will take the place of humans in lots of jobs. There's also the issue of artificial intelligence turning against humans, or keeping us as pets as Steve Wozniak suggested. Children need to understand robotics to give them as much choice as possible about what they do as adults.

Robotics, and technology in general, isn't just a 'nice to have' extra-curricula subject. It's central to where humanity is headed.

  1. Robots are a big part of the future

    It's generally accepted that children should learn about science from a young age because it explains how the world (and beyond) works. Technology and increasingly robotics has become such a big part of modern life that the same argument applies.
    Children who understand how robotics works will have more options in society. They will be more able to, literally, control the world around them. Society as a whole will benefit if more people understand how robots work and don't see them as mysterious black boxes.

    I think it's much easier to argue that children don't need to learn about creative writing that it is to argue that they don't need to learn about robotics. (I'm not arguing that creative writing isn't important though, I think storytelling may actually become more important if humans manage to free up some of their spare time through clever use of robotics.)

    At present there are lots of adults who have very little understanding of technology and are almost afraid of it. Do we want a future where a large majority have that attitude to robots? Taking a look inside the box and understanding how robots work demystifies the technology and removes that fear. This is going to be increasingly important as robots play more of a role in society. 

  2. Robots are changing the jobs market

    Robots are already replacing jobs is very visible ways. Garages (gas stations) and supermarkets are becoming automated. My kids even got frozen yoghurt and ice cream served by a machine in IKEA the other day (it was messy but it worked.)

    It's not just low-skilled jobs that are being replaced. Robot surgeons are being developed and even robot doctors that can assess symptoms with access to a vast amount of information that a human just couldn't process.

    More jobs will involve working alongside robots, programming robots, procuring robots, maintaining robots and creating and customising robots.

    It's important to understand that it's not just about the children who will become professional roboticists. Many other disciplines will have applications in the robotics industry. And many other disciplines will need to apply robotics within their industry. And educators will need to teach the subject too.

  3. There are big problems to solve

    There are some really big and interesting problems to solve in robotics.

    We're starting to see household robots, at the moment these are either single function vacuum cleaners, or tablets on wheels. There's lots of room for improvement! I for one would love to see this technology developed further to free people from uninteresting tasks and to provide assistance for a population that is living longer.

    The opportunity for robots in medicine and caring is huge and includes robotic prostheses, medical wearables, robot surgeons and robot assistants.

    Can robotics help to make sure everyone has access to clean drinking water and food?

    Many problems in robotics are cross-disciplinary. A background in robotics may help a biologist, an architect, an educator or a carer to spot make a breakthrough in thinking or spot an opportunity for a new product.

  4. There are big questions to answer

    As robots become more intelligent there are big questions to answer about how robots and humans will co-exist. Legislation will need to be developed to deal with self-driving cars and medical robots. How will the human race avoid the negative consequences of advanced robots that have been explored in science fiction? What about the ethics surrounding robot assistants and companions? 

    Is it possible to use robotics to enable humans to have more free time? The industrial revolution clearly failed on that one. Could things be different this time?

    A lot of robotics research is funded by the military. What does this mean for society?

    Wouldn't it be preferable if the people answering these important questions, who may be lawyers, economists, politicians, ethicists, the military and business leaders, had at least some knowledge of robotics so that they can make informed decisions (and know when to call in experts)?

    There's also a risk that people with skills in other areas will be excluded from important discussions because they don't have any knowledge of robotics and can easily be pushed aside.

    Kid-friendly robot movies are a great way to introduce your kids to the issues that come with the increasing role of robots in society.  

  5. How else will children know if they're interested?

    Should all children learn about robotics? Couldn't it just be those who are interested? Aren't YouTube, clubs and selective options for older children enough?

    I think it's an important enough topic that all children should be taught about robotics in school. Otherwise some children won't have the opportunity to find out whether they are interested. Robotics equipment costs money and requires support and supervision and some children will be excluded if they don't get an opportunity to access it at school.

    At the moment many parents will find that their children don't get hands-on experience with robotics at school and they will need to find other opportunities. 

    Ideally children would have chance to learn about robotics at school and then those that are really interested would pursue it further at home and in clubs and camps. 

  6. Future teachers need to be able to teach robotics

    We're at a difficult point at the moment where current primary and middle school teachers probably didn't learn much about robotics (or coding) when they were at school. This makes it hard for them to teach the subject to the current generation. It's difficult to attract those with subject knowledge into teaching in sufficient numbers. 

    We need to reach the point where teachers are teaching a subject that they themselves learned at school and are comfortable with. This is another reason to teach all children about robotics - some of them will go on to become educators. 

  7. Robotics develops important physical skills

    We're at a point in time where technology has taken us away from the physical world. 

    We're starting to see technology being embedded in the real world rather than just being in designated computing devices. But at the moment a lot of children spend an awful lot of time sitting in front of a computer screen and not developing their physical skills. 

    Building robots is a fantastic way to develop spatial awareness, fine motor skills and a practical understanding of engineering skills. 

  8. Making stuff is a brilliant life skill

    Being able to make stuff is a brilliant life skill. The Maker movement has tapped in to people's desire to create stuff, often incorporating technology.

    Hobbyist robotics is booming. It's the modern equivalent of knitting circles and sheds at the bottom of the garden.

    Being able to make things that solve a real world problem, entertain people or just for the the joy of making them is a fantastic skill to have.

    Having robotics as a skill that can be put to useful and creative purposes is fantastic. Even knowing enough so that you can come up with an idea and then find someone to collaborate with on the details is valuable.
Robotics isn't going away. Let's make sure that children have the knowledge to ensure a good future for them as individuals and for human society as a whole.

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