Curriculum  |    |  December 15, 2015

Wired for Controversy: Exploring Ethics in Autonomous Systems Through Cyborg Roaches and Robotic Insects

Curriculum by Cindy Bohland, Michael Collver, David Lally and David G. Schmale III.
Published by The Science Teacher.


Autonomous vehicles are poised to become part of our everyday lives. Industry experts predict that self-driving cars will be available to the public in three to five years and may account for most passenger cars on the road in the next two decades. Pilotless drones can deliver packages, apply pesticides to crops, and track hazardous agents in the atmosphere. Full-scale, pilotless aircraft may one day transport passengers. Autonomous underwater vehicles can efficiently collect oceanographic data and help locate plane and boat wreckage. Scientists are now studying ways to integrate similar robotic technology into living organisms. Insect and rodent cyborgs could one day be used for military intelligence and earthquake rescue operations and as models for neurological studies. As this technology spreads, we need to develop scientifically literate citizens to make well-reasoned ethical decisions about it. Complex ethical questions can be answered in different ways through different and equally valid arguments. The messy nature of such questions allows teachers to foster critical thinking. In this activity, we asked students, “What are the ethical consequences of introducing autonomous vehicles into society?” This question led to more nuanced scenarios such as: “If your autonomous car is faced with the choice of either harming you or a group of preschool students, what should it do?” and “How do we create autonomous technology that conforms to human ethical values?”

i-Cockroaches and RoboRoaches
The hands-on component of this unit uses remote-controlled robots and cyborg insects. The i-Cockroach Micro Robot is a remote-controlled robot, and the RoboRoach is a cyborg insect; kits to create RoboRoaches from living cockroaches are sold to promote teaching and learning about neuroscience. Both technologies are readily available to high school teachers at relatively low cost.

Purpose and objectives
This activity is designed to

  • introduce students to autonomous vehicle and cyborg animal technology,
  • allow students to experience engineering challenges related to this technology,
  • have students analyze ways in which autonomous vehicles and cyborg animals can provide solutions to current problems, and
  • have students use ethical reasoning to evaluate the proper use, if any, of autonomous vehicles and cyborg animals in the future.

After completing this unit, students will be able to

  • list ways in which autonomous vehicles and cyborg animals can be used now and in the future and
  • use a consequence map to make decisions using scientific and ethical reasoning.

We tested this lesson on a biology class and a robotics class. To prepare, students read the “Robo Revolution” chapter in Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. The chapter describes how insect and rodent cyborgs could be used for military intelligence and earthquake rescue operations and as animal models to study treatments for brain disorders. The lesson was divided into five segments:

  1. PowerPoint presentation,
  2. Class construction of a consequence map,
  3. Discussion of the “Robo Revolution” chapter,
  4. Hands-on activity, and
  5. Concluding reflection of the lesson

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