A group of six children are sitting in a circle with a teacher at an Oshawa, Ont., elementary school’s library. They’re singing to the tune of Old McDonald Had a Farm — a nursery rhyme with which many kids are familiar — but the version they’re singing does not feature animals.
Instead, they’re singing about robots.
“Old McDonald had a farm, A-I, A-I, oh,” sing the children at Village Union Public School while reading tablets displaying the lyrics. “With a ‘bot, ‘bot here and a ‘bot, ‘bot there… here a ‘bot, there a ‘bot, everywhere a ‘bot, ‘bot.”
As they near the end of the song, some of the children crack up when they sing, “And on his farm, the ‘bots rebelled.”
The last line they sing is, “Old McDonald lost his farm, A-I, A-I, oh.”
“Anyone uncomfortable about the ending there?” asks Rick Page, who teaches at the school.
“Yeah,” chime in a few of the kids.
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They’re piloting a song that’s part of what researchers at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) call a new “learning package” focused on teaching kids the impact of artificial intelligence. In partnership with researchers from Western University, the team at the UOIT STEAM 3-D Maker Lab are helping to develop these new tools in hopes of bringing these to kids of all ages at 30 school districts across Ontario by this winter.
Janette Hughes, the head of the UOIT lab, says the goal of the project is to show children that right now, AI is in its infancy, but it will continue to have a growing role in their lives.
“They may be using self-driving cars,” she said. “Everything they do will be tracked and monitored.”
She mentioned cloud computing as an example of a type of AI technology that can retain their information, including pictures.
“Students need to be aware that they’re leaving these digital footprints,” she said.
Part of the package she will bring to classrooms is, of course, robots. Hughes included the Anki Cozmo Robot, which Best Buy advertises as having “hundreds of emotions” and the ability to play games. An app controls this robot, and children are able to see the coding that makes them work.
“He only works on signals,” said Christopher Waugh, 11, on the limitations of the robot and what makes it different than a human. “Humans can talk normally… not really off of signals.”
Hughes is also including a graphic-novel remake of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the changes are similar to that of to the new Old McDonald — there are robot characters instead of animals, and these rebel against one of the “good” bots and their farmer.
When asked what he thinks the book is trying to communicate about AI, 10-year-old Ethan Harper said, “I think it might say something about how too much of it can lead to danger.”