Professor Berry Billingsley gives us a taste of her research into Epistemic Insight ahead of the launch of the Big Questions event launch on 16 May:

“What’s the connection between a black hole and a companion robot … hmm sounds a bit random … maybe it’s easier to answer – what are the differences between them. Here are some of the similarities and differences I’d like to point out – and then the reason for noticing them.

When we were growing up, black holes and companion robots were the stuff of science fiction but recently both have become a lot more ‘real’ – we even have a photo of a black hole. For students growing up today, they are part of the fabric of real life rather than only to be found in movies.

Secondly what’s similar about them is that both are a bit mysterious. Look at the face of a humanoid robot, look again, look again, do those eyes hide a soul or nothing but components and code. As for the black hole – according to the equations it swallows up light and has an infinite amount of gravity. What does that even mean?

There are two similarities – now what about differences?

The main difference between them is that the kind of question we want to ask about a companion robot is far more complex than the kind of question we are likely to ask about a black hole. Black holes prompt us to ask Big Questions (about the nature of reality and our place within it) but the companion robot is already a big complex question. Before we can say whether this entity can exist we must define it – and who will have responsibility for that?

Let’s go back to the black hole for a mo. Which school subject (or scholarly discipline) would you go to if you want to know more about the black hole? You could visit any, but let’s say ‘physics’. In other words – when the news story comes out about the black hole, physics teachers expected and hopefully had a surge of interest in their subject.

Ok – what about the companion robot – who is your guide for that one? Before you answer, because that will give my game away too quickly – a different question. If you go to an engineer and you say “please make me a companion robot” – what will that robot have? Tell me at some point if you disagree – I think we will say – smaller than a person in order to be non-threatening, has senses – can see where it’s going,  helpful and able to carry things and open a door, knows to call the emergency services if the occasion warrants.

If this is the kind of answer that comes to your mind – the kind of brief you will give your engineer as a blueprint for what to build – then I will now show you (I hope) what is missing.

You have regarded the ‘companion robot’ as an entity that gives you what you want in a companion – what you ‘want’ and not necessarily what you ‘need’. This is a bit like the discovery that what we ‘want’ is sweet food which then led to an abundance of cheap sugary food. Technology turns scarcity into abundance and it turns consumers into recipients. Once there is no longer a shortage – the aim for a business is to persuade you to buy more than you need.

The brief that most people invent for the engineer is to produce an entity that is ok with a one-sided relationship that is all about give and no take. But if you went first to Socrates – he would advise you that what matters is not what the robot does for you in terms of giving you what you want, but is instead, the way it influences your soul. A person who is a companion will be far more demanding than the robot – at least far more demanding than the robot you might ‘like’.

The next difference between the two questions. I think schools are good at preparing students for questions like ‘what is a black hole’ – a question that fits neatly into one subject and is unlikely to require the learner to make any life-changing decisions. I think schools are not yet ready to do justice to a Big Question, like ‘can a robot be a good companion?’

A Big Question bridges subject compartments and that means it is more complex to address. It’s a more ‘open’ question in the sense that we cannot expect consensus around one answer – but it’s a mistake to suppose that this means that all answers are equally good.

The companion robot is also a far more immediate question for most of us and our students. Drawing on whatever we teach them now in school – our children will make decisions about whether we ‘old fogies’ get companion robots to care for us as we get older.

Education has a huge role to play in terms of equipping our students with the insight and wisdom they need to help them to make these decisions. In a future blog post, I will explain a learning journey – using key steps in the current curriculum to answer each of the two questions. I will explain how a student who begins in year 5 (upper primary school) can and should progress into a confident scholar by age 15 who can work insightfully with questions that bridge disciplines – and subject compartments – as well as those that sit inside them.”

In the meantime, please contact me – Prof Berry Billingsley, berry.billingsley@canterbury.ac.uk or join us for the launch of the Epistemic Insight Initiative on May 16th – book at www.canterbury.ac.uk/big-questions-day