“Robots that Care: What role should machines play in our lives?” Directed Self-Placement Essay. July 2010.
This essay was the first writing assignment of my collegiate career. Required of all new freshman, the Directed Self-Placement essay is used to evaluate a student’s writing ability upon entering the University. Although the details surrounding its composition are a bit hazy in my mind, I was able to find a copy of the essay requirements in my orientation preparation guide.
The assignment required that we read an article of about 10 pages and write an essay of 750 to 900 words in response. I can’t recall whether we could select our own article or if we were given a list from which to choose, although I have a feeling it was the latter. Otherwise, I can’t fathom how I would have ended up writing about robots and the role machines should play in our lives.
Looking back, I can see how this piece foreshadowed much of what was to come over the next four years. The first thing that strikes me about the essay is its philosophical tone. During the introduction, for example, I define “machine” and “robot” according to their respective dictionary entries and then consider the implications of this distinction on the question being considered:
For the sake of this essay, we will use Webster’s definition of “robot” while reserving the word “machine” for an apparatus that does not resemble a human being. Under these definitions, the prompt of this essay becomes twofold: “What role should machines play in our lives?” and “What role should robots play in our lives?”
With regard to machines, my thesis is that they are good to the extent that they help us to achieve an end that is good. This distinction between ends and means has been a recurring theme in my writing, but I’m surprised to see it appear so early on. With regard to robots, I argue that they are potentially dangerous if not recognized as the artificial creation they are. This caution is perhaps motivated by the Catholic understanding of free will, in which authentic meaning can only derive from a conscious choice. In other words, “robots are not capable of being a true companion, expressing true love, or showing true concern because they are, in essence, wires and transistor chips pre-programmed with software.”
When I saw that my Directed Self-Placement essay was a required element of this annotated bibliography, I was a bit fearful of what I might find when I finally located it on my computer. These concerns were unwarranted. I am actually quite pleased with this inaugural essay, and while I believe—and hope—my writing has improved in the years since, this piece suggests I have been building on a solid foundation.