As the market floods with new gadgets and technological possibilities, excitement can override any consideration for potential issues that could come from these new releases, including a careful approach to whom the devices are being marketed. Of course, parents play the most significant role in managing what their children have access to, but with seemingly harmless robots being sold with children in mind many parents/guardians do not know of or see potential problems associated with the technology. There are many positive reasons to embrace robots and artificial intelligence, but rarely will an advertisement disclose anything beyond the positives about the products.

Robots can provide children with entertainment, education, and can even act as substitute child-minders. Although everything about this is incredibly convenient and could help busy parent relieve themselves of guilt when they cannot occupy their children, whether these children are missing out on crucial interpersonal skills development and human contact is something that must be considered. There is a constant barrage of articles and news items released regularly that criticise contemporary parenting and the way in which screens have replaced of forms of stimuli such as reading or talking the other people, but there is a lack of criticism aimed at the companies that produce these robots and simulated experiences to children.

It is not unusual to see a toddler sat in a pram clutching an iPad as their hardworking parent doses off on public transport, but rather than simply blaming parents, it is important to identify how these devices come to be available to children. Of course, more often than not, parents buy these technological products for their children, but I have no doubt that the advertising of these devices and the ease at which they can be purchased plays a huge role. It is inevitable that children will be exposed to technology, and for the most part, it is a great thing, as they can learn an enormous amount from the click of a button or by asking their bot a question. When the balance between technology and human socialisation is achieved, children can grow into well informed and social people, but when they are left for too long with nothing more than a robot for company, their communication skills will inevitably lack and they will not reach their developmental stages (e.g. empathy) at the same rate as more socialised children do.

San Francisco robotics startup, Anki, released a robot called Cozmo, designed to manifest some emotional engagement for child users. The robots are pitched as little buddies. Many will sincerely doubt the emotional capabilities of a robot, but robots dating back to the 1960s have been able to manipulate the emotions of humans. For example, an MIT creation, a computer system called Eliza acted as a psychologist, asking people questions about their feelings. As a result of this emotional interaction, people started treating Eliza as if she were human.

Cozmo is small enough to sit in the palm of your hand, and costs a mere £175 and is marketed towards children and adolescents. The cost and strategic marketing towards a younger audience make this an ideal and easy gift for a child. The robot has been programmed with an ‘emotion engine’, which means Cozmo can respond to environments and circumstances in a manner similar to a human. Comzo displays emotions ranging from a happy and content to annoyed and gregarious. If you agree to play a game with the robot, its eyes will transform into upside-down U’s to show happiness. The cynic within me sees this as emotional manipulation to sell a product, and I highly doubt such a product can replace emotional interaction with other humans.

The technology of these robots is incredible and show the enormous capabilities of artificial intelligence, and there will be some lonely children who will find real solace in their relationship with these bots. Research into Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR)  has found benefits through therapeutic applications for children with developmental disabilities, like Autism, as well as helping to personalise health education for children with diabetes. On the other hand, I find it problematic that such devices are being marketed as “like humans” because it should not be suggested that robots can replace human interaction. Robots should be embraced as a separate entity from humans, and only embraced in moderation in childhood.

As more regulations are put in place to determine a product’s psychological and developmental suitability to children, robots and other advanced technological devices will be evaluated for the impact they have on young minds (good and bad). There are definite areas in which robots can benefit children, including monitoring health and helping children with developmental conditions to interact and learn. Bringing robots into the home for children to use will be much more in-line with the needs children have; eliminating any negative impact the technology could have.