Humanoid robots were out of fashion at this year’s RoboBusiness, the annual exhibition in San Jose, California, that pegs itself as “the most important robotics event in the world”.
Make your robot look and sound too much like C3P0, explained Ty Jaegerson of Savioke, and people’s “expectations of intelligence go up”. (Savioke’s robot, a hotel bot that delivers room service in hotels, instead resembles a slightly sleeker R2D2).
The exception to the non-anthropomorphic, however, was the iPal, a child-size robot designed to take on distinctly adult responsibilities.
The 3ft tall iPal has wide eyes, working fingers, pastel trimming, and a touchscreen tablet on its chest. It can sing, dance, and play rock paper scissors. It can talk with children, answer questions like “Why is the sun hot?”, and provide surveillance/video chat for absent parents.
“It’s a robot for children,” said Avatar Mind founder Jiping Wang. “It’s mainly for companionship.” The iPal, he boasted, could keep children aged three to eight occupied for “a couple of hours” without adult supervision. It is perfect for the time when children arrive home from school a few hours before their parents get off work, he said.
The iPal takes the debate over the automation of human jobs to the next level. The ethics of how robots should interact with children is necessarily more fraught than the ethics of robots in the workforce. Childcare has rarely, if ever, been a particularly well-remunerated or respected job, but it is essential.
If children are raised by robots – even just for “a couple of hours” a day – what are the consequences?
Noel Sharkey, a professor emeritus of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, has been raising concerns about robotic nannies since 2008.
“Robots are a great educational tool for children. It inspires them to learn about science and engineering,” Sharkey told the Guardian in March. “But there are significant dangers in having robots mind our children. They do not have the sensitivity or understanding needed for childcare.”
The overreliance on robots to look after children will lead to “a number of severe attachment disorders that could reap havoc in our society,” he argued.