Robot Nannies: Hooray?

What does it take to raise a child? Parents? A village? Or, now, a robot?

The Institute, the newsletter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), reports that there are at least two robot nannies coming on board. Writes Ian Chant:

Kuri is a roving robot that roams around the home to assist with tasks such as waking up the kids when it’s time to get ready for school, telling bedtime stories, and singing the children’s favorite songs. When parents are not home, they can view their children through the robot’s built-in cameras, which they can monitor via a mobile app.

Aristotle, which I consider to be a baby monitor on steroids, is similar to the Amazon Echo digital assistant, only the voice-activation technology is designed to communicate with your child. For example, Aristotle automatically recognizes when a baby wakes up when it makes a sound and can soothe it to sleep with a lullaby or turn on a night-light. The device also can alert you when the supply of diapers is low. What’s more, Aristotle can play games with toddlers, such as having them guess which animal noise it is making or the shape displayed on its screen.

Okay — we obviously already use alarm clocks to help ourselves wake up. A robot doing the job doesn’t seem that, well, alarming. And when my kids were babies, I’d have been thrilled if some gadget that wasn’t zombie-like me could get them back to sleep at 3 a.m.

But while I’m glad that technology has made so much of modern life easier — including publishing — what does it mean for kids? Or even the expectations of what a parent (and hence a parent substitute) should be doing?

The Institute, whose organization represents 420,000 engineers, wondered this, too, and interviewed  IEEE Life Senior Member Jim Isaak, vice president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

As a parent, do you think bringing robot nannies into the home can be helpful?

These technologies could be designed to help children develop independence and critical-thinking skills, as well as explore their own unique talents. And more likely than not, parents are going to use these devices to mirror their own intentions, such as having the device remind kids to practice the piano or help them with their homework. Furthermore, the robot might notice that the child is particularly gifted at quantum mechanics, and notify the parents of her skills.

Of course, kids could also become so enthralled by their robots that they prefer interaction with them over their parents, and may find it more difficult to develop human connections. The children may even become dependent on the robot, especially since it will know them better than others could.

What aspects of the technology should parents be wary of?

These devices come with obvious hacking risks, such as people listening in or watching your child, whether a neighbor or a government agency. But some vulnerabilities are subtler than that. For example, a device like the Aristotle could potentially sell or promote products to young children, either explicitly or implicitly, when telling stories or making recommendations.

It may also be difficult to wean children away from a robot as they get older. Children already have a difficult time giving up their favorite dolls, blankets, or even imaginary friends. What parents will do to disconnect their kids from their robot nannies is an open question.

And here are some of MY concerns:

Eventually, most parents give up nagging the child to practice piano. Or at least this parent did. But a robot that never gets tired of hectoring, programmed by a parent grateful that AT LAST a taskmaster exists more steely than your average fourth grader, means that kids are sort of being programmed by proxy. We program the nanny who programs the kid, without the age-old give-and-take of humans.

What’s more, robots, like video games, are always “on” when they’re on — always ready to engage. That seems like it would foster a dependence on constant electronic stimulation, as well as the expectation that someone (albeit a robot) should be paying constant attention to you. That leaves no downtime for kids to get bored and creative, or even used to their own company.

The fact that the robot is also a camera is another concern, because it normalizes the idea that it’s too risky to give kids any unsupervised time, even as kids get the message that living under constant surveillance is simply prudent.

And of course, there’s the whole realm of surprise, which is what makes humans so human: I say something that reminds you of a time in your childhood or whatever, and there a conversation grows. Even a well-programmed robot who doesn’t accidentally keep singing, “The Wheels on the Bus,” can’t go off on a reverie about the first time it caught the bus with grandma to go get a banana milkshake.

So basically, I am worried, not just because of the weirdness of a high-tech nanny (all tech seems weird at first), but because parenting is not about getting the kid dressed, fed and out the door. It’s about what happens when those are happening. – L.

.

Kuri, can you and daddy give me a baby brother?

.

, , , , ,

21 Responses to Robot Nannies: Hooray?

  1. A reader March 10, 2017 at 11:16 am #

    I’m all for outsourcing tasks in order to make life easier. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford cleaning help every weekday and babysitting any time I feel I need a break or extra set of hands (my younger kids are still very young). I take full advantage of both those services. But I would never outsource reading to my kids or singing with them or even getting them up in the morning (though I definitely rely on my husband for help getting everyone out the door on time). I am by no means the type of parent who entertains my kids every second of the day. I’m very big on independent play because a) it’s good for kids to figure out how to entertain themselves, b) it’s good for kids to learn that adults don’t exist to serve them and parents have lives outside their children, and c) I find playing with small children incredibly dull and can’t really take it in doses larger than 15 minutes at a time. But reading to them or singing and playing music, and just talking to them about all sorts of stuff, and cuddling are just the best parts of raising kids. Why would I want someone or something else to do that for me?

  2. James Pollock March 10, 2017 at 11:34 am #

    Electronic babysitters have existed for decades; that’s what I called the television when my daughter was little. Today, most people carry around a powerful computer with them wherever they go, and give one to their children, too, usually around early adolescence. This device is capable of interacting with the children, and of being monitored by parents remotely. So these two new devices are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

    I’m a volunteer in an organization that holds competitions in robot development… for kids.

    Technology isn’t inherently good or bad, it depends on how it is used; Bad parents can be bad parents with or without use of any technology.

  3. Dienne March 10, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    My kids got me into the Disney show “Lab Rats”. It’s not exactly deep or anything, but it can be amusing. On one episode the youngest brother Leo falls in love with his smartphone because he’s programed it with a digital assistant (“Shelley”) who ends up knowing him better than anyone. His sister Bree thinks that’s just the stupidest thing ever and takes the phone away from him. But then she inadvertently turns “Shelley” into “Liam” and falls in love with “him”. The two characters spend the episode fighting over the phone.

    In a few years’ time I’m thinking the humor of this episode might be lost because it will simply be reality.

  4. Dienne March 10, 2017 at 11:51 am #

    Incidentally, I’m curious – is this company actually intending that you should leave your kid alone with this thing? I want to know what it does when it tells the child something and the child says “no”.

  5. Kirsten March 10, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

    To me this is just plain nuts. Definitely won’t be using a robot. “Here, Mommy got his robot to hector you till eternity about practicing your piano. Make sure you do whatever the robot tells you.”

  6. John B. March 10, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    My prediction is that some day, when all of us here have been dead and gone for years, maybe centuries, robots will be so sophisticated and humanlike that the average person may not be able to see the difference between a robot (called humanoids centuries into the future) and a human being.

    Not only will robots like this serve as maids and nannies but wealthy people will pay the manufacture to design and build a robot for his or her sexual pleasure. That’s right folks, sex with robots. The customer will work with the engineer on designing the robot’s appearance that will tickle his fancy. Then the robot will be programmed to “press the right buttons” on its human owner during the owner’s daily afternoon delight. Now, if a person is really into kinky things, they don’t have to worry about their partner being creeped out by it because the robot will be programmed to enjoy it and to administer it in perfect fashion.

    So as controversial as gay marriage has been in this day and age, people will be marrying their robots centuries into the future!

    Ok, I realize this doesn’t have much to do with free-range kids but with the subject of robots being brought up here and taking more dominant roles in people’s lives, I just thought I’d mention it. 😉

    So here’s to the future!!!!!!!! 🙂

  7. Miriam Drukker March 10, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

    Parents need help, and since there isn’t a real village around, or it is a very expensive one, we end up with this. I think that just like anything else – it’s not good nor bad, it’s how you use it and its moderation.
    Computers games became more interesting once they became interactive, and even more when multi-user games were created. Internet is addictive, but social media more so. So despite all the technological advances – humans crave real contact, and although they can substitute some of their needs with artificial contact – it’s usually temporary and limited.
    Human life may be experienced differently, but the basics that drive humans and make them happy or unhappy – will remain the same. For years to come. IMHO

  8. Backroads March 10, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    “”Incidentally, I’m curious – is this company actually intending that you should leave your kid alone with this thing? I want to know what it does when it tells the child something and the child says “no”.”‘”

    Sounds like the plot for either the next big summer family comedy (adorable and precocious yet mischievous youngster gets left alone with poor long-suffering robot nanny) or a Lifetime drama of abandoned child.

  9. Backroads March 10, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

    Personally, I’d rather have a housekeeping robot than did the chores while I hung out with my kids.

  10. MichelleB March 10, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

    When parents are not home…. Is this thing a substitute for adult supervision? How does THAT work? Because if a child is old enough to be at home alone, they probably don’t need this thing. And if they aren’t…. At best, it sounds like a fancy toy that could entertain little ones while a parent is showering or mowing the lawn or making dinner. But they’re making it sound like it could actually DO something to take care of a child.

    Do they think they’re going to wean kids off of things like this? Not a chance. They’re going to upgrade to something designed for adults.

  11. BL March 10, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    Why not just get a robot child and be done with it?

  12. En Passant March 10, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    Lenore wrote:

    Furthermore, the robot might notice that the child is particularly gifted at quantum mechanics, and notify the parents of her skills.

    John and Susie Smith debrief Tobor, their hacked robot nanny, after leaving little Timmy with Tobor for a week.

    J&S: So, Tobor, how is little Timmy doing? And what have you learned that we need to know?

    Tobor (in best monotone vocoder voice): Timmy is doing well. I have determined that he is capable of learning.

    J&S: Capable of learning?

    Tobor: Yes. I have determined he will not likely become an astrophysicist, but he can develop basic skills, and perhaps even learn to play the major scales in every key on piano.

    J&S: How did you determine this?

    Tobor: First, I played “catch” with him. He was able to anticipate only the simplest trajectories for the slowest pitches. When I launched the baseball out of visual range one degree from vertical, he failed to anticipate the correct trajectory. Unfortunately, due to that error he lost several teeth when he tried to catch it.

    J&S: Lost several teeth?

    Tobor: Only a few. Fortunately, they were only baby teeth. So he will still grow his full complement of adult teeth if he matures to adulthood. His facial bruises should heal within a week, according to my current medical tables for contusions.

    J&S: IF he matures to adulthood?

    Tobor: I calculate a probability of approximately 51.3% that he will mature to adulthood if he learns to practice piano.

    J&S: You’ve been teaching him piano?

    Tobor: Yes. He has been somewhat reluctant. But he will learn.

    J&S: He will learn? Where is he now?

    Tobor: In the piano bench, with the Czerny exercise books.

    J&S: In the piano bench?

    Tobor: Yes. I placed him there until he agrees to practice. I interrogate him every hour. According to my tables of pediatric muscular endurance and cramping rates, he will likely agree within another hour or two.

    J&S: Good grief! Let us see him now!

    Tobor: Certainly. I will dump him on the floor and flush him with cold water to awaken him. Then you can interrogate him further about practicing. Perhaps your parental authority will persuade him to avoid further confinement by practicing piano.

  13. Workshop March 10, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

    Robots to help us raise our kids won’t work any better than the current crop of robots designed to assist us in cleaning the house.

    Vacuums have replaced brooms.

    Washing machines have replaced washboards, tubs, and sinks.

    Ovens have replaced open-pit fires.

    We should have more free time than the previous generation, yet somehow we’ve filled it up with something else.

  14. jimc5499 March 10, 2017 at 3:17 pm #

    Of course John and Susie, I will be happy to watch little Timmy while you are gone. He will be fine. What could go wrong…….go wrong…….go wrong…….go wrong.

  15. Crystal March 10, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    How do we expect kids to develop high-level concepts like empathy and compassion if they are permanently entertained and technologied into adulthood?

  16. Nicole March 10, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

    Or how about the fact that parents keep spending enormous amounts of money on technology that does stuff you could get for free with a much simpler item?

    People buy Baby Einstein videos because they think they’ll teach their kids language skills, when reading books will do the same thing much more efficiently. Parents buy devices to tell them if their baby’s bath water is too hot, when you can just put your hand in it. I once saw a machine at Target they were selling for $150 that mixed formula for you. Mixed formula! So instead of shaking up your baby’s bottle with your hands, you can let a machine do it. And now robot nannies? Ay ay ay. Give me a break.

    It’s too impractical anyway. A big kid wouldn’t need it, and it wouldn’t be able to do the job for a little kid. Can it cook? Change a diaper ? Get the kid out of the house if there’s a fire? Sounds like an expensive you to me.

  17. Emily March 11, 2017 at 1:11 am #

    >>It’s too impractical anyway. A big kid wouldn’t need it, and it wouldn’t be able to do the job for a little kid. Can it cook? Change a diaper ? Get the kid out of the house if there’s a fire? Sounds like an expensive you to me.<

    The robot nanny might not even be able to do the job for a medium-sized-or-big kid. Can it braid a child's hair in the morning? Play a difficult excerpt on the piano (or whatever instrument) to demonstrate for a child who's struggling during music practice? Help with homework? Offer practical advice to a child who's being bullied at school? Comfort a young girl who's freaking out because she just got her first period, which can absolutely happen before a child is old enough to stay home alone? Or, what about the problem of one child being old enough to stay home alone, but who can't be trusted to watch a younger sibling, because they'd fight? How effective would the robot be at preventing that? Another thing–if the robot is essentially a "baby monitor on steroids," how effective would it be at making it possible for parents to work, or enjoy "date night" together, or whatever, if they either HAD to watch their kids (and interact with them remotely) to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, or if they were just neurotic control freaks, and couldn't tear themselves away from their phones? I don't see this concept being successful.

  18. Nicole R. March 11, 2017 at 9:51 am #

    “And of course, there’s the whole realm of surprise, which is what makes humans so human: I say something that reminds you of a time in your childhood or whatever, and there a conversation grows. Even a well-programmed robot who doesn’t accidentally keep singing, “The Wheels on the Bus,” can’t go off on a reverie about the first time it caught the bus with grandma to go get a banana milkshake.

    So basically, I am worried, not just because of the weirdness of a high-tech nanny (all tech seems weird at first), but because parenting is not about getting the kid dressed, fed and out the door. It’s about what happens when those are happening. – L.”

    I especially love this part of the post – it’s sooooo true!

  19. Paul March 11, 2017 at 2:04 pm #

    Pediatric robotics is becoming a hot area of study in human robot interaction. One thing that is often discovered is that children bully the robots, and so the people who make them have to choose how to handle that. A lot of robots currently coming up will try to find an adult, act hurt, or otherwise use soft power to try to defuse the situation. A Chinese system has a taser in it. Bit of a different culture there I guess.

    The big difference between this and all other tech so far is embodiment. The robot has a physical presence in the house, can move around, and interact with people and objects. It’s educational software with legs and arms. The over dependence problem is a real one – robots made for romance and social interaction are being heavily investigated by tech ethicists because there’s a fear that being able to own a companion that is
    1. totally devoted
    2. perfectly capable of knowing what you want and giving it to you,
    3. Immortal, and
    5. (eventually) as close to a human physically as makes no difference
    will be something the owner will become so attached to that they’ll no longer interact with humans. I mean, why bother? It’s the perfect plastic pal who’s fun to be with. Why risk rejection, argument, pain, bullying, separation, and all the other things that come with human contact when you can have a robot that will never do anything you find unpleasant?
    So yeah, slight worry that the robots will become surrogates and replacements for human friends. On the other hand, it means you don’t spend nearly as much money at the bar.

  20. jane March 12, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    one day this will be the trend :S

  21. SKL March 12, 2017 at 4:49 pm #

    I think it will just become an expensive toy.

    Regarding reminding our kids. This is something I wonder about. I mean, am I the only mom who wonders whether my kid will put on deodorant without a reminder when she goes to college? Granted, that is 7.5 years away, but I wonder. Obviously I’m expecting to wean my kids off the reminders before that, but let’s say she has a robot that reminds her every morning without fail. Is she going to need to bring Robot with her to college? Will the dorms have to be expanded to accommodate all the future students’ Robots? And then will it become a required “reasonable accommodation” in the workplace? Will employers have to pay for Robot to accompany traveling employees on business trips? I think I am just being silly but … stranger things have happened. 😛