Friday, March 2, 2012

Robots, Raskolnikov, and Pomegranate Martinis

Greetings from Cincinnati, where I am attending the 21st annual conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE). In those twenty-one years, I have missed exactly twice: the first one (when I didn't know about it yet), and one that conflicted with the Children's Literature Festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri that I also attend every year, so I had to make a painful choice. The APPE conference is often held in Cincinnati, at the wonderful Netherland Plaza Hilton Hotel, an art deco structure on the National Register of Historic Places, designed by the same architect who designed Rockefeller Center.

As soon as I walked in the door yesterday I was happy.

Some things are different this year, and some are the same.

Different: for the first time, I drove here, as it's just a two-and-a-half hour drive to Cincinnati from Greencastle, Indiana. To pass the time in the car, I started listening to the twenty-CD audio book set I have of Crime and Punishment that I originally bought to listen to on the drive from Colorado to Indiana last summer. I subsequently decided that it might be too grim and heavy a choice for my mood at the time, so I replaced it at the last minute with The Paris Wife, a novelization of Hemingway's first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, during his Paris years. But as I needed something for the trip this time, I dragged out Dostoyevsky.

Oh, my goodness! What a book to listen to as one drives! It's so brilliant and mesmerizing, but also SO intense. There I was, heading into rush hour Cincinnati traffic, trying to look out for the left-hand exit for DOWNTOWN - FIFTH STREET and to avoid ending up in Kentucky, as I'm listening to the horrific scene of Raskolnikov's dream of the savage fatal beating of a poor, broken-down workhorse. I'm lucky I made it to the hotel at all.

Also different: This time I arrived in time to see the semi-final round of the national championship for the intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, where our DePauw team had placed in the FINAL FOUR out of the thirty-two teams competing that day. So what a proud moment that was for me, and for all of us.

The same as always: Every single year I've attended a session on some fresh, new ethical issue I have never thought about for even a second during my twenty year career. This year it was a fascinating session on the ethics of designing robots for interactions with children. What a spirited discussion we had on the question of whether robots should or should not be presented as having a gender! Yes: this might enhance children's bonding with the robot and increase the authority of the robot as the robot gives caregiving guidance to a child. No: this might perpetuate gender stereotypes. I was inclined to the latter view, but then I started to think that maybe a supposedly ungendered robot would nonetheless seem to be gendered as male, male being the "default gender" in many cases. Most of my ungendered teddy bears somehow seemed to me to be boy bears. Were yours?

Finally, the same as always: pomegranate martinis in the gorgeous Tiffany hotel bar. Yes!

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