Posted By Raj Singh on 01/10/2018 in Technology

Should Children Form Emotional Bonds With Robots?

Should Children Form Emotional Bonds With Robots?

The robots are coming. Are we risking a severe epidemic of emotional dependence disorders?

It’s become a growing fear everywhere, but especially so in developed, industrialized countries, where robots are expected to displace millions of workers from their jobs by 2030. In any case, it’s more realistic to say that the robots are already here. Advancing technology and the need to solve the world’s countless problems has resulted in the steady development of robotic devices for the past 20 years or so, marking the start of a highly mechanized movement.

Robots are now part of our everyday lives, mowing our lawns, cleaning our floors, providing companionship and laughing at bad jokes with us. They are ordering our shopping, making us to-do lists and switching off our lights at night, just the way we want it. Every bit of the adventure is marvellous!

Children are getting drawn into the fray too. Everyday toys are being replaced by robotic, AI powered ‘smart toys’ that can talk, laugh or feign sadness. Some advanced ones can teach coding and help kids with autism. Personal digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Goggle Home are waking up kids up, reminding them of homework, keeping them company after school and making plans for them.

Very soon, we will have robots picking up kids from school on behalf of busy mothers. Who would have imagined, 20 years ago, that companionship robots would one day be developed enough to act as nannies for children and not hurt them?

The children’s companion robots industry has been growing steadily along with the whole robotics industry for some time now. The London based research firm Juniper Research has predicted global smart toy sales to grow up to $11.3bn by 2020 from current figures over around $5bn.

New robotics start-ups, such as San Francisco based Anki, which made the popular bot Cozmo (see picture on the left) are cropping up every year with new ideas, and parents are joining in on the fun by buying their kids the latest models. It’s important to note that despite being ‘toys’ in the everyday sense, most of the new robots come with powerful AI backed features and abilities that provide a whole new experience.

Children’s robotics have redefined what we always thought robots are supposed to look now. Instead of a long creature with long, wiry arms and bulging eye sockets, a new companion robot today may look like a ball and have simple glowing eyes, while another may resemble a standing child. Some robot toys are designed to mimic young dragons.

The problem with robots interacting with children.

In a previous post we wondered if children should form emotional bonds with robots. Read the article here. We were wondering because one development that’s received major attention is robot tutoring. New robot toys, such as the EZRobot can teach kids how to code, while others have been wired to virtually teach whole course units of major subjects like history. So, could robots be our kids’ future teachers? Not everyone is convinced.

In addition to the fear that teacher robots will force schools to lay off teachers, people are still divided over how beneficial robot tutoring could be for kids. Confused parents are already asking, “Is it okay to have robots teach our children?” To be fair, robots cannot replace a human teacher completely. They might have every nano-bit of technology stored up in databases in their head and require no pay, but robots lack the intuition and simple understanding of a child’s complex emotions.

Future advancements in tech may change this, of course. In their defence, robots can be designed to be really smart. Because of their efficiency, they are bound to do the job well, if you don’t mind their lack of moral knowledge.

Research shows that children and robotic toys learn from each other during playtime, and that this sparks children’s imagination and creativity. The EZRobot, which teaches a child how to code (without writing any lines of code) as he/she puts together various pieces of the robot is one good example. Here to the right is a picture of all three EZ Robots.

The smart toys phenomenon is also bringing up the issue of emotional attachment, as some parents are worried that their children might cozy up more to their robot ‘friends’ and shun their parents and siblings. It’s a viable worry, if you consider the fact the fact that children identify their smart robot toys as playmates and friends after sometime, according to research done by the Boston based company Latitude.

But what else do you expect kids to call a toy that can join in on conversations? At such a young age, children can be expected to bond emotionally faster. Children’s robots haven’t yet been fitted with maternal or paternal instincts, so this emotional attachment may prove more dangerous than expected. But robots, in their defence, are designed to learn from the child as time goes by, and with their AI abilities, this might be a winner for the parents.

Robots may easily detect changes in a child’s behaviour through his/her responses, tone or bodily activity faster than most parents, some of which can be signs of psychological disorders such as depression and suicidal thoughts. Still, some experts are adamant about robot-children companionships and the possible results of the emotional connection.

In expressing his beliefs on the issue, University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey stated once that “…….there are significant dangers in having robots mind our children. They do not have the sensitivity or understanding needed for child care,’ adding that they would result in “a number of severe attachment disorders that could wreak havoc on society.”

Companionship robots are doing an even better job within the elder care industry, which has in recent years been boosted by an increasingly aging population that has fewer children to show for their youth. Experts blame the problem on dipping fertility rates across developed and industrialized countries, as evidenced by the current children per mother ratio of most, which hangs way below the ideal of 2:1.

With most children off to cities for work, aging parents are finding companion robots a welcome intrusion that serves its purpose as arranged. Care-o-bot, the service bot developed by the Frauhaffer Institute in Germany is one such example. It can play music, tell stories and even call for help in case of an emergency. Does emotional attachment present much of an issue in this case? Experts don’t think so. Here's our article on Honda bringing in new four new helper robots this January, aren't we thrilled?

The trouble with digital personal assistants

Despite their unrivalled efficiency and glowing user reviews, digital assistants still present a quandary of sorts for parents, especially those whose kids use the service. Some parents believe assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home are going to turn their kids into ‘order-freaks’, or worsen their bullying streaks, at least. A command as simple as “Alexa, play me Carly Rae Jepsen” might sound harmless, but it might tune a young child’s mind over time to believe they must always be served by others. Shouldn’t that be a cause for worry? Karen Subrahmanyam, a developmental psychologist at California State University doesn’t think so. Instead, she believes that digital personal assistants might lead a child to want to do less things by themselves, adding that “it is something to be watchful for”.

With the growing trend of companionship robots being made for children, parents have got to be watchful over everything. There’s a lot to learn for children to gain from robots (experts believe playing with robots will increase kids’ active hours and reduce the number of hours spent in front of the TV), but their association with this welcome intrusion must not be left to grow to unmanageable heights. 

Or we risk an epidemic of severe attachment disorders.