'Sort of' alive: Researchers probe how kids think about robots

Jun 17, 2013

One way young kids learn to organize the world is by dividing it into living and non-living things. But now that robots vacuum our floors and smart phones talk back to us, do children think of technology as alive? A team of Washington researchers is exploring how kids interact with robots, and what that might reveal about both their brains and ours.

Western Washington University’s Rachel Severson was fascinated with how children relate to nature, and she dug into it in grad school. But then her advisor took a left turn, and started looking into children and robots. Severson, laughing a bit, says she was outraged.

“I was like, what? Robots? Are you sanctioning robots in children’s lives?” Severson  said. “I guess I have a concern about being blindly seduced by technology.”

She was especially concerned about what happens when robots start to take over key human roles in our lives. What would it mean to have a robot for a pet? Or a caretaker? Or a friend?

“I think that there’s fundamental aspects of our real relationships with real people [and] real animals that are really important,” she said.

Are robots alive?

That got Severson wondering about how kids really think about robots .So the WWU psychology instructor devised a series of experiments to test whether the distinction between a “being” and a “thing” is eroding, with the help of a 15-inch long robot named Pleo.

Pleo is designed to look like a blue-eyed baby dinosaur – a one-week old camarasaurus, to be exact. But this baby dino is wired. It has touch-detecting sensors throughout its body, a gyroscope to determine its orientation, a color camera in its nose, infrared interrupters in its mouth and lots of buzzing little motors, controlling its movements.

Pleo sounds mechanical, but it moves more like a kitten. It nuzzles, tracks a person’s movements, even curls up sometimes and falls asleep.

Let the robot win

Severson has recruited 90 children, age 5, 7 and 9, to play with Pleo. They also play with a floppy dinosaur puppet as a comparison, and then answer questions.

Left alone with Pleo, nine year-old Marcus pet and cuddled him. Using a short string, they played tug o’ war.

“What Marcus is doing is very gently pulling on it so that Pleo has a chance. And then he says, ‘you won that time!’ Right? Marcus could win every time, but why does he accommodate his own behavior so that the robot can win?” Severson wondered.

So is Marcus just pretending, or is there something deeper? Based on early data (she hasn’t published results yet) it seems like at least half the kids aren’t just pretending. They know the robot isn’t flesh and blood, and yet there appears to be some kind of genuine relationship between child and robot. Many of the kids even think the robot has rights.

Be nice to your ‘bot

Take nine-year-old Bryanna. In her session, a research assistant picked up Pleo by its tail, causing the baby dinosaur to thrash around and cry out with plaintive bleats.

“So is it OK to hold Pleo by the tail?” she asked Bryanna, who quickly answered no.

“Because that hurts him and that makes him shout,” Bryanna said. “And he doesn’t deserve to be held by the tail because what could he do to deserve that?”

Of course Pleo is just carrying out its programming, and Bryanna and Marcus know that. That makes the kids’ response seem a little puzzling, but only, perhaps, if you think of things as either alive or not alive.

Marcus for one said he thinks if Pleo as “sort of” alive.

“He’s programmed to be alive,” Marcus said.

“They're understanding it unlike any other entity that I can think of,” said Severson. “It seems to be in this in-between space.”

A nuanced take

So are the kids wrong, or are our categories incomplete? Marcus, reunited with Pleo about a week after his session with the researchers, explained it this way:

“It’s more like a puppy. You don’t have to control it. It kind of has fake emotions – it has programmed emotions,” he said.  

Severson thinks attitudes like what Marcus expresses isn’t naiveté, so much as nuance. Marcus, for instance, has a pet – a leopard gecko. So would he trade in his real lizard for a mechanical dinosaur?

“Probably not, since the pet’s actually a living thing. It would be kind of sad to let it go,” he said.

Reexamining assumptions

It turns out that most of the kids answer that way. And for Rachel Severson, who was so alarmed by children getting too cozy with their robot buddies, that’s encouraging.

“I guess in some ways I feel heartened because I see that kids are able to make those judgments for themselves, and they're not willing to give up the real thing,” Severson said .

Severson has come around on the whole question of whether kids and robots can have a healthy relationship. She’s found that robots force us to reexamine distinctions grown-ups take for granted.

“I’m fascinated by how kids will talk through things and work out, how do I think about this? It feels like they're in progress of trying to understand the world. Where I think adults, we often feel like we’ve already got it figured out,” she said.

There are still plenty of questions about how kids and robots interact, including what happens when these kids become adults themselves. Will they grow out of it? Or maybe this will be the first generation perfectly comfortable coexisting with things that are “sort of” alive.