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Is it plagiarism if a robot created it?

I’m in the process of grading the final exam I give for my class.  Included in the exam is a question I wrote that was meant to demonstrate their understanding of plagiarism.  Here is the question:

Suppose 30 years from now you receive a paper from one of your students of such quality you suspect they didn’t actually write it.  When confronted, they admit that they had their robot “Curtis” write it for them.  They argue that since it wasn’t another person who wrote it for them, it’s not plagiarism.  Do you accept their paper?  Justify your answer.

As I’m grading, I was noticing a disturbing tendency to agree with the student.  Finally, one of my students’ answered in a way that really demonstrated what their thinking was, and it came down to the way they defined plagiarism.  If they defined it as ‘taking work not your own and claiming that you created it’ they denied the paper.  If they defined plagiarism as ‘taking another person’s work and claiming it as your own’ then they would agree that the student was correct that it’s not plagiarism, but wouldn’t accept the paper.

So in the end, it really hedged on the presence of “person” in the definition.  They don’t imagine robots fitting the description of ‘person’ so it wouldn’t be plagiarism, as long as their definition of plagiarism included the word ‘person’ in it.  I just find that incredibly interesting.

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  1. It’s interesting that students don’t consider robots to be people? It’s interesting to me that you think that’s interesting. Why would they be people? Personally I would say that robots don’t have souls. But in general, I also thought science was pretty particular about that whole “species” thing and what actually constitutes a “living” being.

  2. That’s only a side issue to this, but something I do find interesting. When it comes to plagiarism, I think it’s obvious that if you were the author of the work, but you claim that you are, then it’s plagiarizing. It doesn’t matter what the source of the work is.

    As for whether or not a robot could be a person, there are two things to point out. First we’re talking about hypothetical futures, not current realities. Secondly, the answer to this question is telling: do you think it’s possible that one day, we could create a machine that could think at a level indistinguishable from humans?

    Sure there is a lot of philosophy involved here (e.g. what is “thought?” what is “soul?”), but imo, it’s not only possible, but inevitable as long as we don’t destroy ourselves first. It could be decades or even centuries, but it will happen eventually.