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Book Reviews and Term Papers

February 17, 2013

When thinking about a topic for a term paper, you can do a lot worse than reading reviews of recent books and seeing what grabs your attention. One good source is The Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. A recent review of David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics by Colin Allen provides a good example. Here’s the first paragraph of Allen’s review:

What is “the machine question” and does it have an answer? David J. Gunkel summarizes his main finding on the penultimate page of the book, writing that “the machine institutes a kind of fundamental and irresolvable questioning” (p. 211) — in other words, being irresolvable, there is no answer. But what was the question? In his introduction, Gunkel gestures towards a burgeoning literature in robot ethics and machine morality, and asserts that before this literature “advances too far”, it is necessary to address three questions: “Namely, what kind of moral claim might such mechanisms have? What are the philosophical grounds for such a claim? And what would it mean to articulate and practice an ethics of this subject?” (p. 2). If the first of these is the machine question, the other two constitute the methodological spiral within which the primary question becomes unanswerable.

The rest is here. At the end of the day Allen is somewhat out of humor with Gunkel’s book, but that’s neither here nor there for our purposes. Rather, the point is that you can get a real jump start on a topic by engaging critically and skeptically with book reviews like this. Ask yourself: What are the big ideas here? What do the reviewer and the author agree about? What do they disagree about? How might one go about trying to resolve these disagreements? What presuppositions are in play? Especially relevant for our purposes is, obviously, the relevance of the ideas being debated to the world of science fiction film. And,  as always, have fun!

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