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'This is awful': robot can keep children occupied for hours without supervision


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The 3ft tall iPal has wide eyes, working fingers, pastel trimming, and a touchscreen tablet on its chest. It can sing, dance, and play rock paper scissors. It can talk with children, answer questions like “Why is the sun hot?”, and provide surveillance/video chat for absent parents. 

“It’s a robot for children,” said Avatar Mind founder Jiping Wang. “It’s mainly for companionship.” The iPal, he boasted, could keep children aged three to eight occupied for “a couple of hours” without adult supervision. It is perfect for the time when children arrive home from school a few hours before their parents get off work, he said.

Noel Sharkey, a professor emeritus of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, has been raising concerns about robotic nannies since 2008.

The overreliance on robots to look after children will lead to “a number of severe attachment disorders that could reap havoc in our society,” he argued

In 2010, Sharkey and other robotics specialists published an “ethical appraisal” of robotic childcare that he believed had “closed down the field for now”. 

When I contacted Sharkey and informed him about the iPal, he responded, “This is awful.”

We don't know what the consequences of significant child exposure to robot nannies would be.

Short-term exposure can provide an enjoyable and entertaining experience that creates interest and curiosity. In the same way, television and computer games may be used by parents as an entertainment or distraction for short periods. They do not provide care and the children still need human attention. However, because of the physical safety that robot minders provide, children could be left without human contact for many hours a day or perhaps for several days, and the possible psychological impact of the varying degrees of social isolation on development is unknown.

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