On September 21st 2014, Roamer marked the UN’s designated Day of Peace by signing the Pledge to Peace – an EU call to action. Valiant formed a partnership with Convitto Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele II”, school in Rome, who had signed the pledge two years ago. The plan was to create a set of Roamer activities which will provoke students to think about relevant issues and in some cases help them to develop some relevant skills. Before taking the activities to Rome it was decided to try them in some local schools. The opportunity arose under the STEM Ambassador programme for me to visit Bentley Wood High School for Girls in Harrow and Sydenham School in Lewisham.
In this activity students use Roamers which have opposite behaviour characteristics. Programming the Roamer puts students in a situation where they need to consider a problem from someone else’s perspective. This is a critical negotiating skill. The ability to do this applies to resolving arguments with friends, developing good business relationships or solving major international disputes.
Girls from Bentley Wood High School for Girls experimented with Roamer to see how robots with completely different “perspectives” (programs) can do the same things.
Is it better to cooperate or be selfish? According to the Selfish Gene theory of scientist Richard Dawkins, evolution is selfish – it is all about the survival of the fittest. However, mathematical biology shows us that some cooperation is essential. Examples include genes cooperating in genomes; chromosomes cooperating in eukaryotic cells and cells cooperating in multi-cellular organisms. In nature birds work together building nests and looking after their young. Ants and bees are star team players. Human society is riddled with the interplay between fierce competition and cooperation. In this activity students explore the ideas and mathematics behind cooperation. This is done through a famous problem, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This challenge is one of the issues studied in a Computer Science topic called Game Theory. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a type of problem applicable to a huge range of situations relevant to peace and other important issues. The nuclear arms race, the Munich Agreement, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, to cooperate or compete with a business rival, to reduce carbon emissions or not are all examples of the Dilemma.
The Girls from Bentley Wood High School started to work on some activity ideas. Some of the ideas were very creative and I will look to develop and add them to the Roamer Activity Library as a free resource. I particularly liked the idea that used two Roamers which got closer together every time they cooperated and further away when they competed.
In Medieval times people thought the Earth was the centre of the Universe around which the heavens travelled. Man, with his feet firmly planted on terra firma was of course the centre of this creation of God. When Copernicus and then Galileo declared the heliocentric nature of the Solar System it caused a great disruption to people’s view of themselves. If the Earth is not the centre of the universe what was man’s role? A little later Sir Isaac Newton produced his famous laws of motion. Thus the idea of a mechanistic universe was born. This reduced humanity to the status of a cog in a clock, the universe was deterministic and there was no freewill. We were then hit with Darwin and evolution – we were not even a special cog. We are really in trouble now that the mechanistic universe has been replaced with a computer metaphor. In all the previous perspectives concerning our identity, we were always the smartest things on the planet. Today’s students are entering a world of clones, designer children and supercomputers and robots (super computers on legs – or wheels). The world chess champion has been defeated by a machine; computers can solve problems in a few seconds that it would take us a life time to compute. Even more intriguing is the notion that we may become cyborgs. It is common place to have hip replacements and pace makers, but what about chips in our brain! This is already being done as an alternative to drug therapies for Parkinson’s disease. In his book ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’, Ray Kurzweil talks about a weird type of immortality achieved by swapping memory chips when one body is worn out. Last year in his TED talk ‘Get Ready for Hybrid Thinking‘ Kurzweil postulated nanobots whizzing around the brain sorting out those memory lapses or adding gigabytes of brain power when necessary. It adds a whole new dimension to exam cheating – except that becomes unnecessary as Kurzweil and others have reduced teaching to a download process supported by cloud computing.
All these technological changes have caused humanity to reinvent itself. The challenge of doing this in the face of modern technology is daunting. Except, what is interesting from a peace perspective is the fact that Lao Tzu, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, Kabir – a host of spiritual leaders have always pointed out the wisdom of “know thy self”. The phrase is not about knowing whether you prefer apples or oranges, but about seeking an inner wisdom and peace.
Roamer is not a new age path to enlightenment. Like the other activities it is not about teaching an answer, it is about inspiring students to think about the question and search for an answer. In this activity the students are prompted to think about human, animal and robot behaviours. In programming Roamer to mimic emotional behaviour they get the opportunity to think about how we acquire those behaviours. Does “life programme us”? Or can, as proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) suggest, learn to manage our everyday interactions in a more positive way?
Just published in this months Scientific American: Electric Cures an article by Kevin J Tracey on bio-electronics.
March 2015, Volume 312, Number 3
The activities are at a very early stage of development. But both schools are keen to contribute to their future development and have asked to do the project again.