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CPSR Newsletter Vol 18, No 2
Volume 18, Number 2 The CPSR Newsletter Spring 2000

Computers and Major Ethical Problems in Our Society by Alfred Bork
and Netiva Caftori, D.A.

This paper suggests that the computer, as a highly interactive learning device, might be able to contribute to the solution of some of the major ethical problems of our society. The problem of violence receives particular attention. The fundamental idea is having highly interactive learning delivered to everyone through computers, beginning in early childhood and using voice input and voice output primarily for communication.


Much discussion about ethics and computers is concerned with new ethical problems associated with computers, such as those generated by the Internet. These include old ethical problems showing themselves in a new medium, the computer. Privacy issues are one set of such problems. These topics are important to future uses of computers, but they do not exhaust the topic of computers and ethics.

Our intent in this paper is different; we ask how interactive technology can be used to solve or reduce major ethical problems of our world. Our discussion is incomplete, and needs much further development.

We consider in this paper only one problem, violence, as an example. Other possibilities will, we hope, come up in the discussion, and in future work in this direction.

Our society has major problems, some ethical in nature. Solving these problems is critical to improving the quality of life on earth and even to human survival. We also have a powerful new technology that is changing society: the computer. We will argue that the computer could help with these problems and that the proposed important experiment should be tried.

There are many reasons for violence in the world. One is the lack of a medium for people of all ages to air their frustrations. Another is the perceived lack of choices as alternatives to violent behavior. Very early childhood training, helping children to discover alternatives to violent behavior, may help to prevent future use of violence.

Computers have been used very little in the way we are suggesting. More practical experimental evidence is needed. We think the prospects are good.


Learning plays an important role in dealing with ethical problems. The recommended approach to violence is based on learning. We do not view learning as transfer of knowledge, the view of many schools and universities. We want each student, individually, to work as an explorer, a discoverer, a constructor of knowledge and ethics. So the modules proposed will not tell students how to behave, but will encourage children to create their own patterns and find solutions to their problems.

It is critical to note that learning is a far more difficult process than receiving information. It involves major learner activity. The learning we want can be described as highly interactive.

We also insist that every student succeed, perhaps with gentle guidance from the program. Family background, gender, learning styles, should not matter in an excellent and highly interactive learning program. We want an environment in which everyone learns.


A major ethical problem in our society is the prevalence of violence. Throughout history, humans have been a violent species. This is seen both in everyday life, and in the wars that plague our society. Current attempts to control violence have been almost entirely unsuccessful. Humans seem to be among the cruelest of all species.

Violence goes back for most people to early childhood, before the days of school. We already find many such children who are establishing violent patterns. So we need to start with very young children if we are to reduce violence in our society. Efforts of parents and religions have not helped; indeed, many of these are themselves violent. If young children experience violence in their homes, they may continue this pattern later in their lives.

New technologies such as film, television, and computer games have complicated the situation, with their widespread use of violence. Many developers in these media seem to believe that one way to maintain interest in film and television is through violent situations. The current rating systems offer only slight help. Even in non-violent homes, children are often left alone (perhaps because both parents work) and are exposed to game and television violence and similar peer influences. Television news programs make the same assumption with adults; any violent event in the world is widely reported many times, often for several days in a row.

Violence has been a particular problem recently in schools, particularly with guns. A study from the United States National Center for Educational Statistics states that over half of all schools reported crimes in the 1996-97 school year, with one in ten schools reporting violent crimes. Schools, with all their responsibilities, cannot handle such problems without outside aid, such as that proposed in this discussion.

We would like to offer alternatives to violent behavior through the new interactive technologies, establishing that all children can learn non-violent ways that will prevail for the rest of their lives.

The Learning Development

A two-stage process is recommended in this approach to helping the problem of violence. As indicated, we believe it important to start with children of about three or four.

We suggest that at a preliminary stage special trainers work with young children and their parents, leading them interactively to understand that violence is not a desirable way to interact with other people. Careful notes should be taken of the interactions used. They might also be taped, perhaps on video. Since few such trainers are available we should also learn from major leaders in non violent behavior such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Only a few children can play a role in these first stage activities, so we need to ask how we can use the knowledge gained in this preliminary stage, carrying it over to highly interactive computer modules that can then be used with large numbers of children.

This early work is intended to guide later development of interactive units. How can computers help to produce a less violent society? The key is, as suggested, to help young children toward a non-violent way of life through learning activities. We can provide such learning with carefully prepared highly interactive multimedia computer-based learning material, using the special trainers and others experienced with preschool children, as the designers of the learning units.

It is important that the learning units work with all students. The notion of highly interactive learning will be expanded in the next section. The materials developed would assume no previous computer experience, and would not assume that the children can read or type. The development process for creating highly interactive modules will be discussed further.

Highly Interactive Learning Units

A key idea in this proposed project is highly interactive learning. Very little computer- based learning material so far has been highly interactive, so this idea may not be familiar to the reader.

Human learning conversations are our models for the proposed development. By highly interactive or conversational learning units we mean units in which the work of an individual student or a small group of students with the computer is like that of a student with a very good tutor. Weak forms of interaction, such as pointing and multiple choice, should be avoided. Such units have been developed for thirty years at the University of California, Irvine, with the strategies to be described later. It is important to emphasize that no new technology is required.

The student's native language is the key factor in this interaction. Both sides of the conversation will be conducted in this language. Our languages are the richest communication mechanisms devised by humans. They are our natural ways of communicating, important for human development.

A classical example, before modern technology, is the conversations Socrates held with small groups of students 2500 years ago, as reported by Plato. Socrates asked questions, and the students answered them, leading to new questions. This entire interaction was in the native language of the students. Learning was non trivial; Socrates dealt with difficult issues, some of them ethical in nature. This appeared to be a marvelous system for learning, but even 2500 years ago it was far too expensive. More recent examples are seen in individual tutoring, again an excellent learning mode with good tutors.

Another important complementary form of interaction is that between people, particularly peers. These can be either local, in small groups, or arranged via a network. Such person to person interactions can be parts of interactive learning programs. Games that reward peaceful means to resolve a conflict are another possibility.


We can now use voice input and voice output with the learning units, so that young children will not need to read or type. Communication by talking is natural for humans, and allows superior communication. Several commercial speech products are available and suitable for this project. Pictures on the screen, perhaps video sequences, will also be useful . Children have been observed answering questions on non-interactive television, and this should be much superior if the "machine" replies in a relevant manner! If this is consistently done well, the child may forget that the computer is a machine, as the conversation will resemble that with another person.

More experience is needed with speech recognition of children's voices. We have knowledge about children's vocabulary, useful in this project. Children have small vocabularies as compared to adults. This will ease the problem of recognizing their speech. If any voice training of the computer for each user is required, that would be part of the learning material. But there is a reasonable possibility that such training will not be necessary.

Many Languages

We need also eventually to consider many languages. Violence is a world-wide problem, and cannot be solved in one country alone. Initial material might be in English, but other languages could soon follow if the evaluation shows that the materials are successful.

The development system should allow translations to different languages to be as easy and as inexpensive as possible. Cultural changes may also be needed in conversion to other languages.

Larger Collection of Units

Although our concern here is with helping children to non-violent ways, it might be a better idea to combine this material with other preschool learning materials, offering children a variety of material to prepare them for future learning. Given the success with headstart in the United States, and the existence of worldwide education problems, we might be able to make major improvements in learning.

Developing Highly Interactive Multimedia Learning Units

In this section we discuss how highly interactive units are developed, following procedures used for thirty years at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Geneva.

The learning units proposed are different from most existing units. Can such highly interactive learning material be prepared and used with young children and parents? Will it produce a less violent society? We believe the chances are promising, but further study is needed to answer these questions.

The design and development of adaptive and highly interactive multimedia units is an understood process, needing no new technology. The issue of how effective such units will be can only be decided empirically.

At least four stages enter into the production activities: project management, pedagogical design, implementation, and formative evaluation and improvement. Specialists are needed in each area for quality units. If the units are to be highly adaptive and to work with all students, great care must be taken in the production process. Pedagogical design and formative evaluation are particularly important stages in production, so they are discussed further below. The four stages are about equal in costs.

Pedagogical Design

Pedagogical design can be done with small groups of people, trainers and teachers, who are familiar with the children to be reached, and are skilled in non violent approaches, as already suggested. Groups of about four are suggested. Several hours of preliminary training will be essential.

The central problem facing the design group is to ask the right questions, to understand at each moment what the child is thinking. The purpose of these questions and the replies of the student is to decide what problems the student is having, and so to determine what learning sequences are to be presented next. Much of the questioning will be situational in nature; what would the child do in the situation? Short video sequences, an integral part of the learning units, will also be useful in creating situations for the children to react to.

Having asked the questions, and analyzed the replies, the next task of the design group is to decide what the child is to see next. Many different responses will be possible in these highly interactive units. Designers must also be concerned with maintaining the interests of the students.

In some situations parents may work part of the time with the children at the computer. The design should allow for this possibility. But we cannot assume that parents will want to spend this time with the children. We will also allow the possibility that several children will work together at the computer, bringing the advantages of peer learning.

The results of the design sessions are recorded as "scripts," graphical representations of how the programs are to behave. Scripts can be either on paper, or stored in the computer.


Implementation follows design. Much of the writing of computer code will be done automatically from the design if the script is stored in the computer. Media specified by the designers must also be prepared in this stage.

Formative Evaluation and Improvement

In formative evaluation the goal is to see how well the material works with the intended students. A full range of students is needed. Weak places can be improved, and the process should then be repeated.

Motivational issues must also be evaluated; we want the units to hold the attention of all students. Interaction helps in keeping the children involved.

Much of the information required can be gathered by the computer. Professional evaluators would be involved in designing the evaluation and in gathering some of the data.

The Future

We have proposed a dramatic new approach to solving major problems in our society. Why is this not done?

The process of producing highly interactive learning units, essential to this idea, is not inexpensive, so major financial support is necessary even for an initial trial of the direction suggested. Further, little highly interactive material has been developed as yet, so many people may not understand the possibility of this approach.

If we want the material to be fully warranted, years may have to pass and the behavior of the growing children reevaluated against control groups. We do not claim that this is an easy solution. But we do not know of any possible plan that has equal or greater promise.

We have used violence as an example. Many other human problems might he helped by similar approaches. Effective interactive learning is the key, learning that does not take place today. This learning must be available for everyone on earth.

This very important experiment should be tried. The promise of non violent youth in a more ethical society is invaluable.

Alfred Bork
Information and Computer Science
University of California
Irvine, CA 92697-3425

Netiva Caftori
Northeastern Illinois University
5500N.St Louis
Chicago, IL. 60625

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