Can you teach a robot how to be a human? Is water a commodity?


The appetizers

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book “Klara and the Sun” (2020) refers to the near (?) future when children get digital enhancements and technological endowments that empower them to be more intelligent. There are then those who are “lifted” and those who are “unlifted”. Klara is a robot, an “artificial friend”, a companion, a nanny, an assistant which accompanies Josie, a teenager who is ill, perhaps due to the advancement process. Klara is the narrator and through her eyes we follow the stories of Josie’s family and her friends. The truth is that Josie’s mother reserves a special role for the gifted artificial friend. She hopes that through a revolutionary process Klara can replace or “embody” Josie. As I was reading the novel I could see all the present marvels: distant teaching and learning, medical breakthroughs, climate and environmental scares, and, some of the future ones: robots and humanoids of all sorts taking over human tasks, machine learning and artificial intelligence. The plot is inspiring and the messages so many. A novel worth reading. The end makes you think about this sort of future.

And so does the second novel I read: Maja Lunde’s “The End of Ocean” (the Norwegian title is “Blue” and the Greek “The History of Water”, 2017). This is the second book of Lunde’s planned “climate quartet”. It follows two main characters and their fight towards drought and extreme lack of water. The first story describes Signe’s voyage, in 2017, from Norwegian fjords to French countryside by her sailboat “Blue”. She hopes to deliver twelve crates of Norwegian ice to her first love who happens to be the manager of a company which mines and trades Norwegian ice. The second story follows the efforts of a young father, David, to protect and guide his young daughter, Lou. They are lost and wander as refugees trying to meet up with the missing other half of the family, Ana, the mother and August, the baby son. We are in 2041 and water wars tantalise the world. The two stories cross each other when David finds Signe’s sailboat in a cottage garden. Lunde’s writing is exquisite, the despair and fear are paramount, but they do not discourage you, in contrast, they make you think about this sort of future.

Main Course

In both books, the main principles of life have been violated in the name of dubious benefits. These benefits, as it usually happens, turn against the many and offer futile earnings for the few and powerful. Some of these principles are not supposed to be debatable: integrity, respect towards the nature, wise use of natural resources, honest human relationships, unconditional love, sustainable development, ethical teaching, viable learning that fosters all the above mentioned principles and many more. In both books, teaching-wise, the message is that teaching, and learning are so much more important to be trusted to screens, machines, and algorithms. Hybrid, blended, flipped or distant, education – combining teaching and learning – is basically about the deep, unequivocal human relationship between teachers and learners. It is about imagination, creation and questions, it is the product of osmosis.

The fortune Cookie

It is not a matter of being a technophile or a technophobic – the Luddites is a footnote; Steve Jobs is a celebrity. What matters is what kind of future we project for our children, our learners. Can Klaras replace kids? Can you teach a robot how to be a human? Is water a commodity? Can you sell it, or, can you sell the sunrise? Can you get “lifted”? Will this ever be the norm?

If are interested in water, water trade, and its future, you can watch the documentary: Flow, the love of water (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkdIIfArWqo).
WARNING: It may make you feel sad and frustrated.

Both books can be used in a language classroom. Ishiguro’s can be used in B2 and C1 and it may work well with 13- to 15-year- old teenagers. There are plenty of topics and themes that can be used for projects, round tables, essays and role plays. Lunde’s is for older learners, 16- to 18- year-old teenagers. Again, there are plenty of things you can do and teach using the book. If you think that the books are long and may tire your learners, you can work chapter by chapter in the classroom setting some time aside for the reading and the discussion. Literature can make an excellent syllabus addition and if it is nicely promoted it will be extremely rewarding for both teachers and learners.