Meet Your Child’s New Nanny: A Robot

A boy playing with iPal, a social robot.

(Photo credit: AvatarMind Robot Technology)

Would you leave your small child in the care of a robot for several hours a day? It may sound laughable at first, but think carefully.

"Given the huge amounts of money we pay for childcare, a [robot caregiver] is a very attractive proposition."

Robots that can care for children would be a godsend to many parents, especially the financially strapped. In the U.S., 62 percent of women who gave birth in 2016 worked outside the home, and day care costs are often exorbitant. In California, for instance, the annual cost for day care for a single child averages over $22,000. The price is lower in some states, but it still accounts for a hefty chunk of the typical family's budget.

"We're talking about the Holy Grail of parenting," says Zoltan Istvan, a technology consultant and futurist. "Imagine a robot that could assume 70 percent to 80 percent of the caregiver's role for your child. Given the huge amounts of money we pay for childcare, that's a very attractive proposition."

Both China and Japan are on the leading edge of employing specially designed social robots for the care of children. Due to long work schedules, shifting demographics and China's long-term (but now defunct) one-child policy, both countries have a severe shortage of family caregivers. Enter the iPal, a child-sized humanoid robot with a round head, expressive face and articulated fingers, which can keep children engaged and entertained for hours on end. According to its manufacturer, AvatarMind Robot Technology, iPal is already selling like hotcakes in Asia and is expected to be available in the U.S. within the next year. The standard version of iPal sells for $2,499, and it's not the only robot claimed to be suitable for childcare. Other robots being fine-tuned are Softbank's humanoid models Pepper and NAO, which are also considered to be child-friendly social robots.

iPal talks, dances, plays games, reads stories and plugs into social media and the internet. According to AvatarMind, over time iPal learns your child's likes and dislikes, and can independently learn more about subjects your child is interested in to boost learning. In addition, it will wake your child up in the morning and tell him when it's time to get dressed, brush his teeth or wash his hands. If your child is a diabetic, it will remind her when it's time to check her blood sugar. But iPal isn't just a fancy appliance that mechanically performs these functions; it does so with "personality."

iPal robot interacting with a boy.

(Photo credit: AvatarMind Robot Technology)

The robot has an "emotion management system" that detects your child's emotions and mirrors them (unless your child is sad, and then it tries to cheer him up). But it's not exactly like iPal has the kind of emotion chip long sought by Star Trek's android Data. What it does is emotional simulation--what some would call emotional dishonesty--considering that it doesn't actually feel anything. But research has shown that the lack of authenticity doesn't really matter when it comes to the human response to feigned emotion.

Children, and even adults, tend to respond to "emotional" robots as though they're alive and sentient even when we've seen all the wires and circuit boards that underlie their wizardry. In fact, we're hardwired to respond to them as though they are human beings in a real relationship with us.

The question is whether the relationships we develop with robots causes social maladaptation, especially among the most vulnerable among us—young children just learning how to connect and interact with others. Could a robot in fact come close to providing the authentic back-and-forth that helps children develop empathy, reciprocity, and self-esteem? Also, could steady engagement with a robot nanny diminish precious time needed for real family bonding?

It depends on whom you ask.

Because iPal is voice-activated, it frees children to learn by interacting in a way that's more natural than interacting with traditional toys, says Dr. Daniel Xiong, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at AvatarMind. "iPal is like a "real" family member with you whenever you need it," he says.

Xiong doesn't put a time limit on how long a child should interact with iPal on a daily basis. He sees the relationship between the child and the robot as healthy, though he admits that the technology needs to advance substantially before iPal could take the place of a human babysitter.

It's no coincidence that many toymakers and manufacturers are designing cute robots that look and behave like real children or animals, says Sherry Turkle, a Professor of Social Studies and Science at MIT. "When they make eye contact and gesture toward us, they predispose us to view them as thinking and caring," she has written in The Washington Post. "They are designed to be cute, to provide a nurturing response" from the child. "And when it comes to sociable AI, nurturance is the killer app: We nurture what we love, and we love what we nurture."

What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we're willing to outsource their care to a robot?

The problem is that we get lulled into thinking that we're in an actual relationship, when a robot can't possibly love us back. If adults have these vulnerabilities, what might such lopsided relationships do to the emotional development of a small child? Turkle notes that while we tend to ascribe a mind and emotions to a socially interactive robot, "Simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is never feeling, and simulated love is never love."

Still, is active, playful engagement with a robot for a few hours a day any more harmful than several hours in front of a TV or with an iPad? Some, like Xiong, regard interacting with a robot as better than mere passive entertainment. iPal's manufacturers say that their robot can't replace parents or teachers and is best used by three- to eight-year-olds after school, while they wait for their parents to get off of work. But as robots become ever more sophisticated, they're expected to become more and more captivating, and to perform more of the tasks of day-to-day care.

Some studies, performed by Turkle and fellow MIT colleague Cynthia Breazeal, have revealed a darker side to child-robot interaction. Turkle has reported extensively on these studies in The Washington Post and in her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Most children love robots, but some act out their inner bully on the hapless machines, hitting and kicking them and otherwise trying to hurt them. The trouble is that the robot can't fight back, teaching children that they can bully and abuse without consequences. Such harmful behavior could carry over into the child's human relationships.

And it turns out that communicative machines don't actually teach kids good communication skills. It's well known that parent-child communication in the first three years of life sets the stage for a child's intellectual and academic success. Verbal back-and-forth with parents and caregivers is like food for a child's growing brain. One article published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that babies who played with electronic toys—like the popular robot dog AIBO—show a decrease in both the quantity and quality of their language skills.

Anna V. Sosa of the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University studied 26 ten- to 16-month-old infants to compare the growth of their language skills after they played with three types of toys: Electronic toys like a baby laptop and talking farm; traditional toys like wooden puzzles and building blocks; and books read aloud by their parents.

The play that produced the most growth in verbal ability was having books read to them, followed by play with traditional toys. Language gains after playing with electronic toys came dead last. This form of play involved the least use of adult words, the least conversational turn-taking with parents, and the least verbalizations from the children. While the study sample was small, it's not hard to extrapolate that no electronic toy or even more abled robot could supply the intimate responsiveness of a parent reading stories to a child, explaining new words, answering the child's questions, and modeling the kind of back-and-forth interaction that promotes empathy and reciprocity in human relationships.

Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools, but they can't make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued.

Research suggests that the main problem of leaving children in the care of robots on a regular basis is the risk of their stunted, unhealthy emotional development. In Alone Together, Turkle asks: What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we're willing to outsource their care to a robot? A child might be superficially entertained by the robot while her self-esteem is systematically undermined.

Two of the most vocal critics of robot nannies are researchers at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., Noel and Amanda Sharkey. In an article published in the journal Interaction Studies, they claim that the overuse of childcare robots could have serious consequences for the psychological and emotional wellbeing of children.

They acknowledge that limited use of robots can have positive effects like keeping a child safe from physical harm, allowing remote monitoring and supervision by parents, keeping a child entertained, and stimulating an interest in science and engineering. But the Sharkeys see the overuse of robots as a source of emotional alienation between parents and children. Just regularly plopping a child down with a robot for hours of interaction could be a form of neglect that panders to busy parents at the cost of a child's emotional development.

Robots, the Sharkeys argue, prey upon a child's natural tendency to anthropomorphize, which sucks them into a pseudo-relationship with a machine that can never return their affection. This can be seen as a form of emotional exploitation—a machine that promises connection but can never truly deliver. Furthermore, as robots develop more intimate skills such as bathing, feeding and changing diapers, children will lose out on some of the most fundamental and precious bonding activities with their parents.

Critics say that children's natural ability to bond is prime territory for exploitation by toy and robot manufacturers, who ultimately have a commercial agenda. The Sharkeys noted one study in which a state-of-the-art robot was employed in a daycare center. The ten- to 20-month-old children bonded more deeply with the robot than with a teddy bear. It's not hard to see that starting the robot-bonding process early in life is good for robot business, as babies and toddlers graduate to increasingly sophisticated machines.

"It is possible that exclusive or near exclusive care of a child by a robot could result in cognitive and linguistic impairments," say the Sharkeys. They cite the danger of a child developing what is called in psychology a pathological attachment disorder. Attachment disorders occur when parents are unpredictable or neglectful in their emotional responsiveness. The resulting shaky bond interferes with a child's ability to feel trust, pleasure, safety, and comfort in the presence of the parent. Unhealthy patterns of attachment include "insecure attachment," a form of anxiety that arises when a child cannot trust his caregiver with meeting his emotional needs. Children with attachment disorders may anxiously avoid attachments and may not be able to experience empathy, the cornerstone of relationships. Such patterns can follow a child throughout life and infect every other relationship they have.

An example of the inadequacy of robot nannies rests on the pre-programmed emotional responses they have in their repertoires. They're designed to detect and mirror a child's emotions and do things like play a child's favorite song when he's crying or in distress. But such a response could be the height of insensitivity. It discounts and belittles what may be a child's authentic response to an upsetting turn of events, like a scraped knee from a fall. A robot playing a catchy jingle is a far cry from having Mom clean and dress the wound, and perhaps more importantly, kiss it and make it better.

Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools. But they can't make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued. That's the job of parents, and when parents abdicate this responsibility, it's not only the child that misses out on one of life's most profound experiences.

So consider buying a robot to entertain and educate your little one—just make sure you're close by for the true bonding opportunities that arrive so fast and last so fleetingly in the life of a child.

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.
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