The Atkins Center for Ethics at Carlow University sponsors an annual essay contest for high school students. Essay topics focus on an issue of ethical concern for our country and the world.

2022-23 Essay Contest

How should we think about thinking machines? Essay prompt

Essay topic: “How Should We Think About Thinking Machines? The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence”

From the automatons of ancient Greece to R2-D2, humans have long imagined the possibility of creating robotic life. Now, as artificial intelligence continues to advance, it sometimes feels like a truly thinking machine is only a matter of time. Earlier this year, for example, a Google engineer was fired after claiming that the LaMDA chatbot had become sentient. On the other hand, some argue that artificial intelligence is impossible—machines can simulate intentions, thoughts, and desires—but they can’t “feel” them.

Given these difficulties, how should we ethically think about artificial intelligence? At what point would it be necessary to presume that an artificial being has genuine desires, fears, hopes, and intentionality? If a machine can truly think—or at least convincingly imitate thought—what is our ethical responsibility toward it? Is an artificial sentient being morally equivalent to an inanimate object, an animal, a human, or something else altogether? Does it have rights and responsibilities? Should we treat a machine as a moral person?

Moreover, even before we get to the ethical problems of full sentience, artificial intelligence presents us with countless ethical conundrums. DALL-E 2 and similar artificial intelligent programs continue to break new ground within the visual arts, music, and creative writing. Who owns their creative output? Is such an artwork the property of the artist who uses the AI, the programmer who created it, even the AI itself? Further, as AI spills into our daily lives through self-driving cars, social media algorithms, and medical technology, we are faced with deep ethical problems—from privacy and surveillance to bias and discrimination. Who is ultimately responsible in such situations? How do we create artificial intelligence that doesn’t simply replicate our existing biases? Questions abound!

In this essay, students are tasked with delving into the deep ethical questions raised by artificial intelligence. Submissions should touch on both the big philosophical questions of ethical personhood—could there be artificial personhood, how might we know if machines possess it, what rights would an artificial sentient being have, etc.—as well as at least one practical example of ethical concerns regarding artificial intelligence in the everyday world. Additionally, all essays should engage in ethical thinking by drawing on ethical frameworks, principles, or other ideas from the history and tradition of ethical reflection.

Contest rules

The essay contest is open to all students enrolled in grades 11 or 12.

  • Essay must be 800-1200 words in length, not including citations & bibliography
  • Student must respond to the topic questions in an articulate, clear & organized manner
  • Essay must be the independent work of the student
  • Essay must be submitted as a PDF or Microsoft Word document


Essays will be judged on the basis of:

  • a thorough and well-organized response to the prompt
  • the ability to explore and discuss the ideas and ethical concepts that support his/her position

No particular ethical perspective will be imposed on the entrants. Students are encouraged to express themselves freely.

Judging will be conducted in two stages (1) initial screening of submissions that all rules are met and selecting the top 20 essays, (2) judging the top 20 essays by a committee of Carlow faculty members and members of the Atkins Center for Ethics advisory board.


A first, second and third place winner are awarded cash prizes. Prizes will be awarded by the committee solely on the basis of merit. No additional commitment is required.

Past Essay Contest Winners

2021-22, Topic: “What Can We Post? Free Speech in a Digital World”

  • Matthew Purcell, Avonworth High School, class of 2023
  • Leah Kornbau, Brookville Area Junior-Senior High School, class of 2022
  • Rohini Pillai, Avonworth High School, class of 2023

2020-21, Topic: “Who Goes First? Making Hard Decisions in an Unequal World”

  • Geina Shaker, Greater Latrobe High School, class of 2022
  • Isaac Krom, Greater Latrobe High School, class of 2022
  • Abigail Hakas, Homeschooled, class of 2021

Contact Atkins Center for Ethics

For information on this year’s essay contest or general questions, contact us! 

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