Alan Wagner

Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering and
Director, Robot Ethics and Aerial Vehicles Laboratory (REAL)
College of Engineering
2018 TLT Faculty Fellow
Focus Area: Robotics / Immersive Environment

The proliferation of online education and open resources has opened the door to many challenges for educators. Students have nearly unfettered access to information, and studies show that more than 30 percent of students attempt to use unpermitted resources while taking a test. Additionally, the Chronical of Higher Education has reported the existence of online services that offer to complete students’ academic work. While technology opens avenues that can erode academic integrity, it may also hold the key to guiding students to more ethical decisions. Alan Wagner’s fellowship will explore that possibility.

Robotics and artificial intelligence are rapidly redefining higher education. In fact, there is already an artificial intelligence teaching assistant that works with graduate students in an online artificial intelligence class. As these AI systems evolve they can aide in how robots interact with humans in a social setting. Currently robots are limited by a lack of common sense, previous experience, or understanding of social norms. Explicit programming can help overcome these limits, but the solutions will only go as far as the programming allows.

This project will develop social robots that can learn from a person, ask the person questions about how to play interactive games like Uno or checkers, and incorporate the answers they provide into actionable knowledge about the game. The robots will be further developed to teach its human opponent how to play games with empathy, integrity, and social awareness. For instance, the robot will demonstrate sadness at losing several games in a row then the human will be presented with chances to let the robot win. Our hope is that these systems can generate “nudges” which encourage ethical behavior or, perhaps, cause the students to reflect on the ethical implications of their actions.

The implications of this fellowship could have wide-ranging, transformational effects on higher education by encouraging students to reflect on their own ethical decisions within the classroom. The potential benefits and costs of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in higher education require close study, and Wagner’s project will make strides in providing a deeper understanding of such factors.

The Team

Dr. Kathy Jackson