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This course looks at the scientific capability, potential and limitations of robotics and the societal implications of their advance. The history of how machines, automation and robotics have changed our lives and what is projected for future machines will be explored. In addition to typical classroom activities, students will have the opportunity to work as teams to build, program and experiment with various robotic implementations.

Some of the issues that will be used to stimulate student involvement and thereby lead to the attainment of desired learning outcomes are contained in the following paragraphs:

We continue to passively witness the incursion of machines into our lives, usually with unthinking acceptance. Financial transactions become rote, from the cashier at the supermarket who only needs to push a few buttons to calculate totals and make change on items that no longer have prices printed on them, to the ATM that doles out cash we often don’t even bother to count. Skilled workers are replaced by even more skilled robots that work tirelessly with no demands for compensation. New and smarter machines are being developed at an exponential rate, and it seems that every advance in the ability of machines to think gives license to negate the need for humans to think.

The specter of HAL still hangs over us and the question of if (or when) computers will be intelligent enough to propagate and learn without human intervention has not yet been answered, at least not to the satisfaction of all. More pressing perhaps is that only a relatively few humans with very sophisticated knowledge are needed to develop machines that render the skills that make up the traditional work force obsolete. Perhaps the danger is not from overly intelligent machines, but rather from a movement to a technocracy wherein power comes from the ability of an elite priesthood to control the machines we find we cannot do without.

To study how the robotic incursion affects our lives involves more than just a look at a current technology. On the one hand, it offers the student an opportunity to see how the diverse scientific fields of physical optics, electromagnetics and mechanics merge with the computational fields of mathematics and computer science to provide a framework for the development of intelligent machines. Of equal interest is the way in which the broader field of robotics impinges on social and philosophical issues. Questions such as the morality of designing “thinking” machines, especially ones that replicate human characteristics and may replace their human counterparts provide topics for student exploration, as does the social impact of robots on the work force.

A unique advantage of the subject matter of this course is its breadth of scope. Technical, social, political, philosophical, religious and environmental issues are all contained in the fabric of this emerging technology. Thus it is an excellent vehicle for students with diverse interests to explore, and will develop their ability to examine modern-day issues by investigating and reporting on their analysis of topics from a broad spectrum that are of interest to them.