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Nova’s Ark touches on several questions of personal identity, artificial intelligence and gender dynamics.
Nova the robot yearns to be a space explorer just like his dad, Taspett. Nova spends his free time inventing things and watching holograms about spaceships and space exploration. During a class field trip, Nova’s curiosity gets the best of him and he ends up flying out into space on a spaceship. Nova’s ship crash lands on a desolate planet where he finds himself alone until Taspett’s ship lands on the same planet. Taspett is found dying in the wreckage, but Nova manages to find the parts required to keep him alive.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Nova’s Ark personifies robot characters, and in doing so, provides on several examples of personal identity, what it means to be a person, and the significance of change with respect to personal identity. Additionally, the topics of artificial intelligence and gender dynamics play major themes throughout the story.
Personal identity is a philosophical topic that emerges when humans ponder their very nature and what it means to be a person. One of the major events that the book ends with is Taspett being modified with various parts in order to save his life. This poses several questions regarding personal identity and what components or characteristics of an individual constitutes that individual’s personal identity. One question to consider is whether or not Taspett’s personal identity has been altered as a result of his modifications, and, if so, to what extent. From this notion a discussion about the relationship between physical features and personal identity can be evaluated. One might ask about the significance of physical features when discussing one’s personal identity, whether or not the significance is valid, and in what contexts the relationship between personal identity and physical features would be most prevalent.
Gender dynamics can also play a prominent role in discussion, as much of the story works to reinforce traditional gender roles. Although there are fewer classic paradoxes or problems associated with this topic, it still leads to many fruitful philosophical discussions. Getting children to consider topics about what it means to be a man or woman, how men and women are similar and different, and what stereotypes we might hold without even knowing it, all develop a sensitivity towards how these issues affect their everyday life. Encouraging kids to consider how they would feel about men and women switching places in this story (and others) seems to be an easy way to illuminate ideas for discussion.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Persistence of Self
- What animal parts did Nova switch in for his dad’s (Taspett) old parts?
- Do you still think that this new robot is Taspett?
- What if Nova builds a new Taspett from a blueprint?
- What if the new Taspett has the same body, but a new circuit board (mind)? Is he still Taspett?
- What if the new Taspett just had his circuit board replaced with another one that is indistinguishable from the first? Is he the same?
- How could this apply to humans?
- Is it possible that we are just complicated robots?
- Do you think it’s possible to have robots that think/feel? Does that make them people?
- What if robots could learn? Does that make them people?
- If a thinking, feeling robot capable of thought isn’t a human, then what are you if I put your brain in a robot body? If it is human, how would we know the robot is actually thinking/feeling and not just pretending?
- Do you think it was okay for Taspett to be far away exploring while his wife and child were home?
- What if Nova’s mother and father switched places? Would this be more or less fair to Nova?
- Nova suggests that he was scared about being away because he didn’t know who would take care of his mother. Do you think this is a fair worry?
- Would Nova have worried about his father in the same way if his mother and father had switched places?
- Why doesn’t Taspett stay home taking care of Nova while Nova’s mother goes exploring?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Alex Bynum and Sam Cooke. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
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