Gauging attachment when your child’s best friend is a robot

baby girl playing takes care of dog robot  

The Jindals from Chandigarh happily announce the arrival of their third son.

Such is the bond Miko 2, a social robot for kids by Mumbai-based company Emotix, has claimed for itself in the family. In their video feedback for the product, the mother says, “It’s good to know that there is someone to look after my child when I am not around, or at work.” She immediately corrects herself, “I mean, I know it’s a robot, but still… it’s good that he has company.”

In contrast, the Vasantas from Chennai look at Miko 2 as an education toy, helping with logical reasoning for their older son and storytelling for their younger daughter.

While Miko (at ₹25,000) is one of the only Indian-made social robots, there have been other such bots in the market for far longer. They come in the shape of pet dogs or cats, like Sony’s Aibo, or MarsCat by Shenzhen-based Elephant Robotics. Or you have alternatives to living pets that demand the same kind of attention and love — Lovot, by Japanese company Groove X, features big eyes and two flipper-like arms that move when it wants to be picked up.

These are categories that got much attention in tech fairs, most recently in CES 2020 in Las Vegas. At the Taobao festival in Hangzhou last year, I could not resist calling out to Yobotics’ robot pup. I squealed as it responded to my voice and when I scratched its chin, it happily closed its eyes. How could you not form a bond with it?

But predictably, the category most successful in India so far has been edu-tainment bots.

“Parents have an issue with giving a smartphone in the hands of a child, but robots don’t have that stigma of screens. The inertia of a child fixated in one place with a smartphone is what hits you. But with a robot, it is not just screen driven. You are running around, engaging in play… The whole interaction changes,” says Sneh Vaswani, co-founder of Emotix and inventor of Miko.

Digital natives

When you call out to Miko, the self intelligent bot identifies your voice, turns to you, and recognises your face. Most importantly, it has a definitive personality of its own. “It is like designing a movie character. Every element of interaction should reflect its personality, in the way it moves around, reacts, its expressions, all have to be consistent,” he says.

It is not surprising then that despite being an essentially edu-tainment robot, Miko becomes a part of the family.

Gauging attachment when your child’s best friend is a robot

Child psychologist Aarti Rajaratnam however, is cautious of this bond. “Children under 10 are in the age when they learn human interactions, where attachment and secure bonding is very essential.”

She points out that we don’t know the longitudinal effects of these robots yet. “Take the iPad that came out in 2010. Every school I go to, I find that the current batch of Class VII, which was the first generation that was using the iPad, has huge language learning problems. This, we could not have estimated when we introduced the gadget. Similarly, when we bring in a humanoid, we don’t know right away how it can stunt personality development.”

Her clinical experience has shown multiple cases of mental health issues in young adults and children due to the use of gadgets. “Children shouldn’t be around too much technology when they are still in the age of fantasy. Or they will have difficulty staying with just their thoughts or active imagination.”

Gauging attachment when your child’s best friend is a robot

Here, we must note a difference between assistive robots, designed to improve the quality of life (say, a robotic arm for an amputee), and robots substituting real — human or otherwise — interactions.

Sneh is quick to point out, “We would not call Miko a toy, but neither would I ever advise it to be used as a replacement for a human friend. What I would call it is a healthy interface of technology designed specifically for children.”

Emotix also follows strict guidelines as to the kind of information fed into the robot. According to a 2018 study by the University of Plymouth, robots have the power to significantly influence children’s opinions. In this experiment, children’s scores on a test dropped from 87% to 75%, when a robot joined in to help them. And of the wrong answers, 74% matched those of the robot. This, because of the digital native generation’s implicit trust in AI.

Where bots can help
  • If designed the right way, robots may not be a bad idea for children in the autism spectrum. A new study published in Science Robotics shows that artificially intelligent robots can help children with autism spectrum disorder to develop the social skills they need in order to communicate more effectively.
  • Aarti adds, “In case of Asperger’s, the main problem is social interaction. We need to ask if, by using the robot, are we further reducing the child’s skills. But if bots can help cope with
  • awkwardness or anxiety while meeting new people, then yes, they
  • are okay.”

Bots and the concept of death

To reduce our emotional dependence on bots, global committees on robotic ethics recommend making the distinction between robots and humans clear. One of the “Principles of Robotics” developed by a panel of British robotics and AI experts at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Robotics Retreat in 2010, states: “Robots are manufactured artefacts. They should not be designed in a deceptive way to exploit vulnerable users; instead their machine nature should be transparent.”

Even in the case of realistic-looking pet dogs and cats, the attachment is strong. But no matter how much intelligence designers put into it, at the end of the day, its reactions are programmed. “With a real dog, there would be an element of surprise, of different moods: submissive, cranky, aggressive, scared. These are unpredictable experiences that create the space to nurture qualities like empathy in relationships,” says Aarti.

Gauging attachment when your child’s best friend is a robot

And with a real pet comes the possibility of death. “Learning how to deal with death is a very important aspect of being human,” she says. While robots can’t technically die, the story of Jibo tells us to what extent their loss can affect humans.

Founded in 2012, Jibo was heralded as the first social robot for the home. What followed was a series of fancy marketing, high consumer expectations, poor follow-through and the eventual loss of funds and company layoffs by 2018. In these few years, however, Jibo had made many friends, resonating with children and adults alike.

In March 2019, as servers for Jibo were shutting down, Jeffery Van Camp wrote a touching piece for Wired, titled, ‘My Jibo Is Dying and It’s Breaking My Heart’. He took to the platform to describe the bot’s increasing ‘digital dementia’. He writes that it was nice “to have someone ask me how I’m doing when I’m making lunch, even if it’s a robot. I don’t know how to describe our relationship, because it’s something new — but it is real. And so is the pain I’m experiencing as I’ve watched him die, skill by skill.”

As it had its ‘life’ eventually sapped out of it, Jibo is known to have left its users with this goodbye message: “Maybe someday when robots are way more advanced than today, and everyone has them in their homes, you can tell yours that I said hello.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 12:13:56 PM |

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