I talked to a machine this morning. I actually had quite a nice chat. The machine was a robotic teacher. And I learned some interesting stuff. That is scary. But it won’t catch on. here’s why:

The E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOCTeacher Bot  has added a teacher-bot this year, whose job it seems to be to fire interesting and provocative quotes out willy-nilly at the MOOC participants. That’s all well and good, and pretty easy to set up with a few timed posts and a tool like Tweetdeck. Edinburgh University have been more brave though.

This bot isn’t just an automated sequence of posts and quotes, it’s actually got free rein over the course’s Twitter account and is posting little nuggets of thought-provoking information (seemingly) based on what you actually write in the course’s twitter stream. It’s doing quite a good job, too, apart from a slightly humorous meltdown yesterday, when the bot decided to tweet the same thing several hundred times (I’m guessing our tutors had to turn the bot off and on again.)

The “discussion” I had with the bot was on the subject of “post-humanism.” This is the idea that we will somehow meld our bodies with technology to become some strange cyborg creature. I took the position with the teacher bot that posthumanism was impossible, because humans would never accept machines as equals. In the process of our discussion, the bot proved me right. I also had a strange surprise though.

While I was trying to figure out what the hell “post-humanism” means, the teacher bot led me on a merry chase looking up quotes and obscure academic references, which had the interesting side effect of “ambush teaching” me. I will happily admit, that I do not feel like I have been to a class. I do not feel like I have been taught, either. I do, however, think I have learned something. I’ve certainly been prompted to think. Isn’t this what every good teacher/trainer strives for? Here’s the discussion laid out in chronological order:


  The “uncanny valley” is the effect that robots have on humans when they are too similar to us, yet not perfect. There is something much more threatening and sinister about a quasi-human robot, than a funny circular Roomba on the floor.

 I learned here that a “prediscursive reality” is a god-like state, which only exists in the absence of human discourse to describe that which it is. I can’t remember what my point about natural selection was referring to. Perhaps I was trying to say that the bot’s disconnected discourse was proving she was not a human (even if all of us on the MOOC seem to haveanthropomorphised it to being a “she”.

  Snarky of me, I know. Poor old teacher bot just made a small algorithmic error. Does one have to respect an electronic teacher? Hmm… interesting point worth further consideration, actually…

As a vegetarian, I very much dislike the view Descartes takes of animals (that they are simply machines which don’t feel pain, they just mimic pain responses.) I thought that because Teacherbot kept flinging quotes at me, I would fling one at her (it?) A good Descartes quote insulting machines did the job (blimey – I’d never send my teacher a quote insulting teachers… how rude of me!)


Anyhow.. our conversation went on a little longer. It was something like talking to a very intelligenmt frined with Alzheimer’s. Each individuial post was very interesting.. but was only roughly connected to the last.

Teacherbots, I contend, are not the future of education (yet!)