Life & Culture

Big questions for the robot in the classroom

Philosopher and JC columnist David Edmonds has written his first children's book - about a very convincing robot


Remember Sophie’s World? The Norwegian children’s book about philosophy was a publishing sensation in the 1990s, translated into 59 languages, selling more than 40 million copies.

The only problem was that once placed into the hands of actual children it tended to gather dust, being dense and sadly boring with a plot mostly comprised of Sophie going to the bottom of her garden for long philosophy lectures.

But now there is a children’s book about philosophy that youngsters will actually enjoy. Undercover Robot: My First Year As A Human, is philosopher — and JC columnist — David Edmonds’ first foray into children’s fiction, written with Bertie Fraser. Unlike Sophie’s World it is very funny, with believable characters and an action-packed plot, telling the story of Dotty, an android taking part in a contest which will reward her creators with money for future research if she can successfully last a year in school passing as human — the famous test invented by Alan Turing to determine AI success.

Along the way there is excitement, jeopardy and entertaining jokes about dog poo and toilets, perfect for its nine-to-12-year-old intended audience. But just as Dotty is pretending to be a real girl, concealing her electronic insides, this tale has within it hundreds of philosophical questions to ponder. What’s more it’s a book that is equally enjoyable for an eight-year-old and a professor of philosophy, as there are plenty of philosophy in-jokes. “Readers seem to take the story at face value,” says Edmonds, “but I’d hope they will think about the deeper questions too.”

Dotty’s adventures may seem to be a departure for Edmonds, whose other books include studies of the philosophy of discrimination, the Cold War chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972, and Wittgenstein.

But JC readers already know from his Jewniversity column that he’s a master at summing up vastly complex ideas in few words. And his career at the BBC has also been dedicated to making big ideas accessible to a wide audience. It was through the BBC that he met Fraser, and working together on the podcast Philosophy 247 led to this project.

Although the framing is different, the ethical arguments aren’t watered down for younger readers. Take the classic “trolley problem”, subject of another of Edmonds’ books. If you can save 25 people’s lives by killing five different people, should you? In Dotty’s case this plot twist involves a marauding bear and plunges the intrepid android into an existential crisis of her own.

In theory, once they’d put together a plotline with each chapter based on a different philosophical question, Fraser was in charge of the story-telling and Edmonds contributed the philosophical under-pinning. In practice they collaborated on virtually every line. An editor was interested and asked to meet “and then told us we’d got it all wrong”.

Instead of having multiple points of view, they rewrote the book purely from Dotty’s viewpoint, and then everything fell into place. As well as being published in the UK, they already have deals in the Ukraine, Italy, Hungary and Germany.

Edmonds grew up in south-east London, the son of refugees. His mother came from Egypt, but her parents were German and Austrian; his father arrived on the Kindertransport. He was brought up in an “totally secular” household. “I didn’t have a barmitzvah and neither did my father or my grandfather.” But now, thanks to his wife and their two children, he is “learning to be a proper Jew.” Hopefully that’s a lot easier than Dotty’s erratic path to passing as human.


Undercover Robot: My First Year As a Human is published by Walker (£6.99)


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