If you’re a GenXer, you’ve probably watched enough sci-fi movies from the 80s and 90s to develop a healthy distrust of robots. After all, according to the most common cinematic tropes, they’re either going to enslave us or break down at some critical moment.
The robots of Generation Alpha (the demographic born between 2010 and 2024) are neither autonomous villains nor a hapless bag of wires. We’re reaching a major transition regarding Human Robot Interaction (HRI) and our kids lie at the intersecting point.
From assisting with surgery to knitting hats, robots are taking on more complex tasks than repetitive ones. As they move out of the warehouse and into our homes, we’re faced with questions regarding what we want robots to do and, more importantly, how we want to interact with them.
Both new algorithms and advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology have created a slew of robotic devices designed specifically for children. “Generation Alpha has grown up with AI,” Chris Tucker, curriculum consultant and technological education teacher with the York Region Board of Education in Ontario tells Parentology. “With this new relationship comes some confusion.”
It’s normal for children to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, but the waters get muddied when the object acts and responds how a human might. Tucker concurs. “Now we have to teach them about its origins – Who’s in charge? Where does it come from?”
There are several studies in developmental psychology and HRI that suggest children, especially younger ones, assign certain characteristics to this nascent technology. Among the most telling, children are willing to:
- Assign emotions, intelligence and autonomous thought to robots
- Interact with robots that exhibit curiosity and inquisitiveness to learn
- Pick up conversational cues from robots
- Overestimate what a robot is capable of
In one study, 90 children ages 9-15 interacted with a humanoid robot named “Robovie.” Within the 15-minute session, children interacted physically and verbally with Robovie, until a researcher interrupted its turn at a game and put the robot in a closet, despite its objections. Post-interview, results showed the majority of younger participants believed the robot had thoughts and feelings and was a “social being.” In other words, it could be a friend.
In another 2018 study by MIT’s Media Lab, children aged 4-10 who interacted regularly with smart toys that required AI perceived them as “trustworthy.”
How to encourage a healthy relationship with AI
There are various programs and curriculum aimed at teaching children how to code, program and work with AI. “Start as young as possible; kids as young as JK can grasp AI concepts,” Tucker says. “Learning to program gives the control back to them.”
There are other measures parents can take to help foster an engaging, controlled relationship with robots and AI:
- Help your child design, program or build. It’s important to push through your own hesitations about technology and support a collaborative maker space for your child. Explore how robots are built and, if you’re feeling brave, take one apart to see what’s inside.
- Let your child know who’s doing the controlling and creating. Show how the device responds to commands or direction and discuss where robots get their intelligence from (humans).
- Teach your child to question information derived from robots or AI devices.
What to Avoid:
- It’s important to set boundaries at home. Avoid purchasing toys that promise to be your child’s “best friend” or tell them what to do outside of an educational context.
- Don’t assign personal pronouns. Refer to a robot as “it.” “Calling a device ‘he’ or ‘she’ automatically implies a surrender of control,” Tucker says.
How our children treat robots begins with forging a healthy relationship with tech based on collaboration, free of threat, submission or competition. AI can become part of our regular dialogue about human relationships: cause and effect, action and consequence.
As we guide our children through social dynamics, we must also be cognizant of how AI fits into normal social interactions. What constitutes a “dialogue” or a “relationship?” Understanding how AI works is crucial to compare how two sentient beings interact,” Tucker says. “Drawing boundaries between themselves and technology is absolutely essential.”