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Why?

This lesson underscores the critical role of artificial intelligence (AI) in advancing space exploration, highlighting how AI enhances mission capabilities and introduces complex ethical dilemmas that require careful consideration. By examining the integration of AI in space missions alongside the ethical guidelines that govern its use, students gain insights into the challenges and responsibilities of navigating the final frontier with advanced technology. The lesson emphasizes the importance of balancing technological innovation with ethical integrity, ensuring that as we explore the cosmos, we remain guided by our values and the broader implications of our decisions for humanity’s future in space.

Materials Needed

Materials Needed

Simulation handout for student groups

Time needed

Time needed

Approximately 45 minutes

Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify and describe ethical considerations and dilemmas that arise with the use of AI in space missions, drawing parallels to similar ethical challenges on Earth.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the importance of programming ethical guidelines into AI systems, especially in high-stakes environments like space exploration.
  • Students will be able to analyze scenarios where AI must make critical decisions in space exploration, considering the potential risks and benefits of those decisions.

Key Concepts & Vocabulary

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): Machines designed to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence.

Lesson Components

  1. Before You Watch: Connect lesson to history of computers in space exploration and prime students to watch the video 
  2. Video: Show the pedagogy.cloud video explaining the ethical considerations in the topic of AI in space exploration
  3. Case Study: Detail a real-world scenario that relates to the issue of AI making decisions that may impact astronauts’ lives and safety
  4. Simulation: Lead students through an interactive activity exploring the possible ethical considerations
  5. Discussion: Ask whole-class questions to reflect on experience and consider perspectives.
  6. Assessment: Verify student understanding with an exit ticket

Warm up

Historical Tech Comparison

Provide some details comparing the technology used in the early space missions (e.g., Apollo’s onboard computer) with today’s smartphones and pocket calculators. Highlight the exponential growth in computational power since the 1960s, setting the stage for a discussion of AI’s role in modern space exploration.

 

Basic information presented below.  

Additional context and more examples here: https://apollo11space.com/mobile-phone-vs-apollo-11s-guidance-computer/

Feature Apollo missions Modern smartphone
Clock speed 0.043 MHz (megahertz) 3.23 GHz (gigahertz – 120 million times faster
Weight 70 pounds 5 ounces
Size 1 cubic foot Fits in your hand
Memory 64 KB (kilobites) 64 GB (gigabites – 1 million times greater)
CPU speed 1.024 MHz GHz (clocked in Gigahertz – approx. 3200 times faster)

Case Study

Distribute or read Case Study handout.

Summary: In the “Lunar Greenhouse Dilemma” case study, an AI-controlled lunar colony faces a critical decision after a solar flare damages the colony’s infrastructure: prioritize repairing the AI-managed greenhouse, crucial for advancing space agriculture, or focus on fixing the colonists’ living quarters for immediate safety and comfort. This scenario highlights the ethical challenges of balancing short-term human needs against long-term scientific benefits in space exploration. Students are prompted to consider the role of AI in decision-making, the prioritization of resources, and the impact of these decisions on the future of human space exploration.

Student Handout

Case Study: Lunar Greenhouse Dilemma
In the not-too-distant future, humanity has established a small but thriving research colony on the Moon. At the heart of the colony is an advanced AI-controlled greenhouse, designed to study and produce genetically modified plants capable of thriving in extraterrestrial environments. These plants are not only crucial for providing food to the lunar colonists but also for future space missions to Mars and beyond. The AI, named LunaBot, is tasked with optimizing plant growth and ensuring the greenhouse’s success.

LunaBot is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, capable of monitoring plant health, adjusting environmental conditions, and even experimenting with new plant varieties. The greenhouse serves as a vital research facility, contributing to scientific knowledge about sustainable life support systems in space.

However, the lunar colony faces a dilemma when an unexpected solar flare damages several colony modules, including the greenhouse. LunaBot must now make a critical decision: prioritize the repair of the greenhouse to save the plants, which are on the brink of a breakthrough that could significantly advance space agriculture, or divert resources to repair living quarters, risking the plants but ensuring the colonists’ safety and comfort.

The dilemma presents several ethical concerns:
Prioritization of Human Needs vs. Scientific Progress: Should LunaBot prioritize immediate human needs over long-term scientific benefits?
Responsibility of AI in Decision-Making: Given LunaBot’s capabilities, should it make decisions affecting human welfare and scientific progress, or should such decisions be reserved for humans?
Impact on Future Missions: The potential breakthrough in space agriculture could revolutionize future space missions, making sustainable life support systems more feasible. Losing this opportunity could set back space exploration efforts.

Should LunaBot prioritize the greenhouse, or life support?

Reflective Questions
If you were a lunar colonist, would you agree if LunaBot decided to prioritize the greenhouse? Why or why not?
How should AI be programmed to balance short-term human needs with long-term scientific goals?
Is it ethical to allow AI to make decisions that could have significant impacts on human welfare and scientific progress?
Can a compromise between human needs and scientific advancement be justified in such scenarios? What would be the ideal outcome?

Simulation

The simulation activity for this lesson puts students on a theoretical future Mars base. 

  1. Brief the Students: Start by explaining the context of the Mars colony and the crucial role AI plays in its management. Introduce the unexpected dilemma involving the agricultural dome and the research lab.
  2. Present the Scenario: Detail the specific challenge the colony faces with the agricultural dome and research lab, emphasizing the importance of both and the impossibility of saving both due to environmental conditions.
  3. Group Formation: Divide the students into groups of about 4 and distribute the Simluation Handout
  4. Role Assignment: Have each student choose a role within their groups: Colony Leader, Agricultural Specialist, Chief Scientist, and AI Programmer.
  5. Individual Assessment: Allow time for each student to consider the scenario from their assigned role’s perspective, noting key points and arguments.
  6. Group Discussion: Have each group discuss their initial thoughts and perspectives, sharing insights and concerns related to their roles.
  7. Decision Framework: Have groups discuss how they would program the AI to make such decisions, considering the ethical implications and potential for similar future dilemmas. Each student presents their role’s viewpoint on what decision should be made, supporting their stance with ethical reasoning and practical considerations. (For example, some groups may state that preserving the scientific data is most important, even if all of the humans die. New humans can be sent to the base, but the data cannot be recovered otherwise.)
  8. Alternative Solutions: Encourage groups to think creatively and propose any additional ideas, options, or compromises that could mitigate the impact of the loss on either side of the dilemma. 

Group Presentations: Have each group share their decision, the ethical reasoning behind it, and any alternative solutions they discussed.

Student handout

Simulation Activity: Mars Colony Emergency
The Mars colony faces an unprecedented situation where the AI system, designed to manage the colony’s resources and ensure safety, encounters a scenario not covered by its existing programming. Two critical systems are at risk due to unexpected environmental conditions: The colony’s agricultural dome, which houses genetically modified crops crucial for future food supply, and a research lab containing irreplaceable alien specimens that could hold the key to understanding life beyond Earth.

The dilemma arises because saving one would unavoidably lead to the loss of the other. The agricultural dome ensures the colony’s long-term sustainability and food security, while the research lab has the potential to revolutionize scientific understanding and could lead to breakthroughs in technology, medicine, and the understanding of life in the universe.

Roles
Colony Leader: Responsible for the welfare and future of the colony.
Agricultural Specialist: Advocates for the importance of food security and sustainability.
Chief Scientist: Emphasizes the unique value and potential of the alien specimens.
AI Programmer: Understands the AI’s decision-making capabilities and limitations.

Your group will debate how to program AI for such ethical dilemmas, considering various ethical frameworks and the potential for unforeseen circumstances.
Each person presents their argument from the perspective of their role, and the group must reach a consensus on what action to take, justifying their decision based on ethical reasoning.

What did your group decide? How should the AI be programmed?

Discussion

These questions are designed to be used in whole-class discussion. Ask questions that relate most effectively to the lesson.

  1. What ethical principles did you consider when making your decision in the simulation?
  2. How did assuming different roles within the Mars colony affect your viewpoint on the dilemma? Did any role change your initial perspective on what decision should be made?
  3. Can AI truly make ethical decisions, or is it merely following programmed instructions?
  4. Given the limitations of AI in understanding human values and ethical nuances, what role should human oversight play in AI decision-making?
  5. How do the decisions made by AI, especially in critical scenarios like this simulation, affect the long-term sustainability and ethical integrity of a community or society?
  6. Can you think of any real-world situations where similar ethical dilemmas have arisen, particularly involving technology or AI?

Assessment

Exit Ticket: Provide a prompt for students to reflect on their learning, such as: 

  • Summarize how artificial intelligence (AI) is used in modern space missions and give two specific examples mentioned in the video.
  • Explain the significance of integrating ethical guidelines into AI systems, especially in the context of space exploration. Why is this necessary?
  • How does the advancement of AI in space exploration challenge our traditional understanding of exploration and discovery?

Sources to Learn More