What can you do when you have to stay at home?

Most people may not be used to having to stay at home. Due to a soccer (football) injury, I had to stay put for a long time, yet, I hardly ever got bored (lonely, at times, yes, but doing things makes one forget about that, be content with one’s own company, and get lots of new knowledge experiences along the way). As a silver lining of that—and since I’m missing out on some social activities now as well—I’m compiling a (non-exhaustive) ‘what to do?’ list, which may give you some idea(s) to make good use of the time spent at home, besides working for home if you can or have to. They’re structured in three main categories: enriching the mind, being creative, and exercising the body, and there’s an ‘other’ category at the end.

 

Enrich the mind

 

Leisure reading

If you haven’t signed up for the library, or aren’t allowed to go there anymore, here are a few sources that may distract you from the flood of COVID-19 news bites:

  • Old novels for free: The Gutenberg project, where people have scanned and typed up old books.
  • Newer novels for free: here’s an index of free books, or search for ‘public domain books’ in your favourite search engine.

 

Learning

  • A new language to read, speak, and write. Currently, the most popular site for that is probably Duolingo. If you’re short on a dictionary: Wordreference is good for, at least, Spanish, Italian, and English, Leo for German<->English, and isiZulu.net for isiZulu<->English, to name but a few.
  • A programming language. There are very many free lessons, textbooks, and video lectures for young and old. If you have never done this before, try Python.
  • Dance. See ‘exercises’ below.
  • Some academic topic. There are several websites with legally free textbooks, such as the Open Textbook Archive, and there is a drive toward open educational resources at several universities, including UCT’s OpenUCT (which also has our departmental course notes on computer ethics), and there are many MOOCs.
  • Science experiments at home. Yes, some of those can be done at home, and they’re fun to do. A few suggestions: here (for kids, with household stuff), and here, or here, among many sites.

 

Be creative

 

Writing

  • Keeping a diary may sound boring, but we live in interesting times. What you’re experiencing now may easily be blurred by whatever comes next. Write it down, so you can look back and reflect on the pandemic later.
  • Write stories (though maybe don’t go down the road of apocalypses). You think you’re not creative enough for that? Then try to re-tell GoT to someone who hasn’t seen the series, or write a modern-day version of, say, red riding hood or Romeo & Juliet.
  • Write about something else. For instance, writing this blog post took me as much time as I would otherwise have spent on two dance classes, this post took me three evenings + another 2-3 hours to write, and this series of posts eventually evolved into a textbook. Or you can add a few pages to Wikipedia.

 

Arts

These activities tend to call for lots of materials, but those shops are possibly closed already. The following list is an intersection of supermarket-materials and artsy creations.

  • Durable ‘bread’ figures with salt dough, for if you have no clay. Regular dough for bread perishes, but add lots of salt, and after baking it, it will remain good for years. The solid dough allows for many creations.
  • Food art with fruit and vegetables (and then eat it, of course); there are pictures for ideas, as well as YouTube videos.
  • Paper-folding and cutting to make decorations, like paper doll chains, origami, kirigami.
  • Painting with food paints or make your own paint. For instance, when cooking beetroot, the water turns very dark red-ish—don’t throw that away. iirc onion for yellow and spinach for green. This can be used for, among others, painting eggs and water-colour painting on paper. Or take a tea sieve and a toothbrush, cut out a desired figurine, dip the toothbrush in the colour-water and scrape it against the sieve to create small irregular drops and splashes.

  • Life-size toilet roll elephant figures… or even toilet roll art (optionally with paper) 😉
  • Knitting, sewing and all that. For instance, take some clothes that don’t fit anymore and rework it into something new (trousers into shorts, t-shirt as a top, insert colourful bands on the sides).
  • Colourful thread art, which requires only a hammer, nails, and >=1 colours of sewing threads.

 

Exercise that body

one of the many COVID-19 memes (source: passed by on FB)–Let’s try not to gain too much weight.

Barbie memes aside, it is very well possible to exercise at home, even if you have only about 1-2 square meters available. If you don’t: you get double the exercise by moving the furniture out of the way 🙂

  • Yoga and pilates. There are several websites with posters and sheets demonstrating moves.
  • Gym-free exercises, like running on the spot, making a ‘steps’ from two piles of books and a plank and doing those steps or take the kitchen mini-ladder or go up and down the stairs 20 times, push-ups, squats, crunches, etc. There are several websites with examples of such exercises. If you need weights but don’t have them: fill two 500ml bottles with water or sand. Even the NHS has a page for it, and there are many other sites with ideas.
  • Dance. True, for some dance styles, one needs a lot of space. Then again, think [back at/about] the clubs you frequent[ed]: they are crowded and there isn’t a lot of space, but you still manage(d) to dance and get tired. So, this is doable even with a small space available. For instance, the Kizomba World Project: while you’d be late for that now to submit a flashmob video, you still can practice it at home, using their instruction videos and dance together once all this is over. There are also websites with dance lessons (for-payment) and tons of free instruction videos on YouTube (e.g., for Salsa and Bachata—no partner? Search for ‘salsa shines’ or ‘bachata shines’ or footwork that can be done on your own, or try Bollywood or a belly dance workout [disclaimer: I did not watch these videos]).
  • Zumba in the living room?

 

Other

Ontologically an awful category, but well, they still are good for keeping you occupied:

 

If you have more low-cost ideas that require little resources: please put them in the comments section.

p.s.: I did a good number of the activities listed above, but not all—yet.

Digital Assistants and AMAs with configurable ethical theories

About a year ago, there was a bit of furore in the newspapers on digital assistants, like Amazon Echo’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Microsoft’s Cortana, in a smart home to possibly snitch on you if you’re the marijuana-smoking family member [1,2]. This may be relevant if you live in a conservative state or country, where it is still illegal to do so. Behind it is a multi-agent system that would do some argumentation among the stakeholders (the kids, the parents, and the police). That example sure did get the students’ attention in the computer ethics class I taught last year. It did so too with an undergraduate student—double majoring in compsci and philosophy—who opted to do the independent research module. Instead of the multiple actor scenario, however, we considered it may be useful to equip such a digital assistant, or an artificial moral agent (AMA) more broadly, with multiple moral theories, so that a user would be able to select their preferred theory and let the AMA make the appropriate decision for her on whichever dilemma comes up. This seems preferable over an at-most-one-theory AMA.

For instance, there’s the “Mia the alcoholic” moral dilemma [3]: Mia is disabled and has a new model of the carebot that can fetch her alcoholic drinks in the comfort of her home. At some point, she’s getting drunk but still orders the carebot to bring her one more tasty cocktail. Should the carebot comply? The answer depends on one’s ethical viewpoint. If you had answered with ‘yes’, you probably would not want to buy a carebot that would refuse to serve you, and likewise vv. But how to make the AMA culturally and ethically more flexible to be able to adjust to the user’s moral preferences?

The first step in that direction has now been made by that (undergrad) research student, George Rautenbach, which I supervised. The first component is a three-layered approach, with at the top layer a ‘general ethical theory’ model (called Genet) that is expressive enough to be able to model a specific ethical theory, such as utilitarianism, ethical egoism, or Divine Command Theory. This was done for those three and Kantianism, so as to have a few differences in consequence-based or not, the possible ‘patients’ of the action, sort of principles, possible thresholds and such. These reside in the middle layer. Then there’s Mia’s egoism, the parent’s Kantian viewpoint about the marijuana, a train company’s utilitarianism to sort out the trolley problem, and so on at the bottom layer, which are instantiations of the respective specific ethical theories in the middle layer.

The Genet model was evaluated by demonstrating that those four theories can be modelled with Genet and the individual theories were evaluated with a few use cases to show that the attributes stored are relevant and sufficient for those reasoning scenarios for the individuals. For instance, eventually, Mia’s egoism wouldn’t get her another drink fetched by the carebot, but as a Kantian, she would have been served.

The details are described in the technical report “Toward Equipping Artificial Moral Agents with multiple ethical theories” [4] and the models are also available for download as XML files and an OWL file. To get all this to work in a device, there’s still the actual reasoning component to implement (a few architectures exist for that) and for a user to figure out which theory they actually subscribe to so as to have the device configured accordingly. And of course, there is a range of ethical issues with digital assistants and AMAs, but that’s a topic perhaps better suited for the SIPP (FKA computer ethics) module in our compsci programme [5] and other departments.

 

p.s.: a genet is also an agile cat-like animal mostly living in Africa, just in case you were wondering about the abbreviation of the model.

 

References

[1] Swain, F. AIs could debate whether a smart assistant should snitch on you. New Scientist, 22 February 2019. Online: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2194613-ais-could-debatewhether-a-smart-assistant-should-snitch-on-you/ (last accessed: 5 March 2020).

[2] Liao, B., Slavkovik, M., van der Torre, L. Building Jiminy Cricket: An Architecture for Moral Agreements Among Stakeholders. ACM Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and Society 2019, Hawaii, USA. Preprint: arXiv:1812.04741v2, 7 March 2019.

[3] Millar, J. An ethics evaluation tool for automating ethical decision-making in robotsand self-driving cars. Applied Artificial Intelligence, 30(8):787–809, 2016.

[4] Rautenbach, G., Keet, C.M. Toward equipping Artificial Moral Agents with multiple ethical theories. University of Cape Town. arxiv:2003.00935, 2 March 2020.

[5] Computer Science Department. Social Issues and Professional Practice in IT & Computing. Lecture Notes. 6 December 2019.