Whether it’s AvatarMind’s iPal – the child-sized robot built “mainly for companionship,” or UBTECH’s gesturing Alpha 2 – a robot designed specifically to “simplify life for your family,” crowd funding and startups alike have seen a recent uptick in humanoid robots.
These robots do it all: sing, dance, play games, connect to social media, speak to smart home devices, remind families of appointments, weather alerts, home security monitoring – you name it. But should they babysit your children? These pint-sized versions of R2D2 are mobile and just like R2, are able to communicate in a rather humanistic manner – so they’re capable of capturing your children’s attention in an engaging manner. They’re built to be companions. So why can’t they look after children?
How one uses their humanoid robot has brought about some real ethical issues to the table. A recent Guardian article published on Sept. 29th and written by Julie Carrie Wong entitled, “This is awful: robot can keep children occupied for hours without supervision,” makes a solid case that humanoid robots are downright scary if used for childcare purposes. According to The Guardian’s interview with AvatarMind Founder Jiping Wang at this year’s RoboBusiness exhibition in San Jose, he said, “It’s a robot for children. It’s mainly for companionship and can keep children, ages 3 to 8, occupied for a couple of hours without any adult supervision.”
Wang made similar comments like, “It is perfect for the time children arrive home from school a few hours before their parents get off work.” Some would consider this statement rather reckless for not only does it overextend the iPal’s capabilities; but even more importantly, it leaves AvatarMind exposed to litigation in case something goes wrong during the robot’s nanny shift. Sounds like activating the iPal is as good as dropping the kids off at a local after-school daycare program.
AvatarMind company advisor Madeline Diva had a different opinion on iPal’s intended use. When asked about the iPal’s ability to robotic nanny she said, “It cannot replace a babysitter, but it is a social robot.” Prefacing her statement with the fact that parents today have no problem handing over an iPad to keep their kids quiet, Diva said, “It’s not like you’re going to abandon your kid with the iPal.”
Humanoid Robot creators seem to be walking a fine line between digital assistant and in-home nanny. For example, in a recent iReviews product review on UBTECH’s Alpha 2, it’s rather clear that the company designed its robot to be human-like: “with its 20 moveable joints (meant to simulate movements of the human skeleton), the Alpha 2 has a touch sensor, gesture sensor, and acceleration sensor.” One of its featured programs is Alpha’s ability to read bedtime stories: If your kids want the Alpha 2 to read “Little Red Riding Hood,” the robot will not only narrate the story but will make gestures during the tale. Sounds like the job description of a babysitter. As James Chow, UBTECH Founder and CEO so eloquently put it, “the Alpha 2 offers a brand new kind of interaction between human and computer.”
They may not be able to admit it outwardly or create an all-encompassing marketing campaign showcasing the iPal or the Alpha 2 as humanoid nannies, but both AvatarMind and UBTECH kept certain features in place that just so happen to work seamlessly with childcare. Whether that be playing rock, paper, scissors with the kids after school, reading a favorite bedtime story, or video surveillance monitoring, both robots come equipped with companion features that allow parents to check in on the kids, if necessary.
As one can imagine, robots are unequipped to provide the sensitivity or understanding that is so critical in proper childcare. According to Noel Sharkey, Professor Emeritus of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at University of Sheffield, “The overreliance on robots to look after children will lead to a number of severe detachment disorders that could reap havoc on our society.”