Mercy machines

ABC Radio National’s excellent All in the Mind has just broadcast a two part programme on robots, morality and the edges of human well-being from the bedroom to the battlefield.

The first programme focuses mainly on domestic robots while the second tackles military AI systems, which, as we discussed recently, are so common as to be almost standard in many combat situations.

One of the most interesting points is raised during a discussion with AI researcher Noel Sharkey on the use of robots as ‘digital companions’ for children

While most media panics focus on the effect of technology on cognitive functions (memory, attention, reasoning and so on), history and even current research have shown us that technology has a minimal effect on the development of our cognition.

Nevertheless, we know that emotional development is considerably more sensitive to childhood experience and differences tend to have clearer longer-term effects into adulthood.

This is pertinent because, apparently, child minding robots are already in development:

Natasha Mitchell: And you have to ask what sort of attachment, or what sort of a relationship might a child form with their robotic supervisor over a long period of time?

Noel Sharkey: Yes, this is the worry. If you leave them with them for a very short time it’s very motivating for them, inspire them and get them into engineering or science, they’ll ask questions about it. But if you start leaving them with them for longer and longer periods and there are signs of this already, actually, you’ll find the child will have to form an attachment with them. We’re talking now about very young children, say pre-speech, little toddlers to about four years old, three years old.

There is currently no research in this area, but it’s not an angle I’d heard of before and raises the important but largely ignored point about our emotional reactions to technology.

Link to Part 1 of AITM on machine morality.
Link to Part 2 on military machine morality.

2 Comments

  1. arthur5
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    You might be interested to know that one of the few successful behavioural treatments for low-functioning autism has used robots:
    Duquette et al., 2008 – Exploring the use of a mobile robot as an imitation agent with children with low-functioning autism.
    Autonomous Robots 24(2), 147-157.
    Abstract: Unpredictability and complexity of social interactions are important challenges for a low functioning autistic child. The objective of this research is to study how a mobile robot can, by appearing more predictable, appealing and simple than a human being, facilitate reciprocal interaction such as imitative play. By conducting an exploratory study involving four children, we found that forms of shared conventions such as imitation of body movements and of familiar actions are higher with two children paired with a human mediator, compared to two children paired with a robot mediator. However, the two children paired with the robot mediator demonstrated increased shared attention (visual contact, physical proximity) and imitate facial expressions (smile) more than the children paired with the human mediator.

  2. Hrusha
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I think this picture of ‘old’ friends is quite accurate to the robot/child interaction… maybe its the future?
    http://www.gearfuse.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/robot-friend.jpg


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