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Robo-Nannies

Though it sounds like something from a science fiction movie, China has begun trialing robots to help with child care and elderly care, as recently reported by Sky News. At one of China's largest day care centers, a robot called Keeko dances, talks, and solves mathematical problems. It even supports artificial intelligence so it can begin to understand in the future. While 1,200 miles away, in an elderly care facility, a robot called A-Tai assists in the care of more than 1,300 residents. Robots for children were also featured at the RoboBusiness annual exhibition in San Jose, California last year. Popular at the show was a 90-centimeter tall robot called iPal – a pint-sized robot designed to take on various child care responsibilities. The iPal robot can dance, sing, play 'Rock–Paper–Scissors', answer questions and provide surveillance for absent parents. Designed mainly for companionship, iPal manufacturer Avatar Mind believes the iPal could keep children aged three to eight occupied for 'a couple of hours' without needing adult supervision, in particular, those few hours after school when parents are still at work. The iPal is already in production in China, where the robot is rapidly gaining popularity. However, Noel Sharkey, Professor of AI and Robotics and Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield believes there are many concerns about the ethics of robots in a child care role, telling the Guardian it can lead to 'a number of severe attachment disorders'. "Robots are a great educational tool for children," he said. "They inspire them to learn about science and engineering … But there are significant dangers in having robots mind our children. They do not have the sensitivity or understanding needed for child care." Robots have now entered classrooms in Australia, with a 58-centimeter tall robot called Nao joining students at Bialik College in Hawthorn East. This latest education toy, priced at $15,000, quickly settled into the college, where students gave it a gender change and a new name of Rosie. The Age shared the story, telling of Grade 4 student Romy Szmulewicz, who now counts Rosie as one of her friends, spending her lunchtime programming the robot. "She is very playful, and she is very funny at times and answers your questions happily," said Romy. "They can talk to you and interact with you like a real person." A separate three-year trial of by the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia which placed two NAO robots in early childhood centers, discovered a similar personification of the robots, where children saw the robots as a classmate and friend, rather than simply a machine. Dr Therese Keane, senior lecturer in education at Swinburne Institute of Technology and a co-investigator on the trial, said, "The four-year-olds didn't see the robot as a computer. They didn't see it as an object, they saw it as another classmate." The human-like design made it familiar to students. And this wasn’t just happening in the younger students, Dr Keane saw the personification of the robot occur into secondary school age children. This leads to concerns, not only about the ethics of the robot taking on child care responsibilities, but also how that robot affects friendships and the socialization of children. If they are friends with a robot, would that deter them making 'real' friends, and learning to navigate the challenges of human friendships? However, robots have brought many benefits to certain situations. The Nao robot has been used very successfully to teach children with autism how to recognize emotions and behaviors, where the robot would display a certain emotion for the child to recognize. And a robot called Obi combines a plate with a motorized arm to help people with disabilities feed themselves, giving people more independence without replacing the caretaker role. Teachers have mixed feelings. Whilst some have concerns about their roles being replaced, others see them as a valuable learning tool, helping to develop critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity skills, all which are vital in 21st century living.

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Robo-Nannies; the future for Childcare!

Could machines really care for our children?

Could machines really care for our children?

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