Robots can easily influence children help boost education. The fear of robots taking over the world is a trope that has been widely played up by Hollywood and novelists for decades. Movies and science fiction books present us with a world where artificial intelligence has surpassed mankind, and now threatens our very existence. In most cases, we can be entertained and intellectually stimulated by these ideas, but for most adults, they seem wholly unrealistic.
However, it’s not the adults who may be most at risk were robots to gain power. A new study from the University of Plymouth compared how adults and children responded to an identical task when in the presence of both their peers and humanoid robots. The results showed that children between the ages of seven and nine were significantly influenced by the presence of robots.
The study used the Asch paradigm to test how children and adults are influenced in their responses when they are in front of their peers and robots. This task has individuals look at a screen showing four lines, and answer which two lines match in length. When alone, participants rarely make a mistake. But when performing the task with others, they tend to follow along with what others are saying.
In the study, when children were alone in the room while doing the task, they scored 87 percent correct. But when robots joined in on the task and gave wrong answers, the children’s scores dropped to 75 percent – with 74 percent of the wrong answers matching the robot’s answers. On the other hand, the adults were largely able to resist being influenced by the robot’s answers.
“People often follow the opinions of others and we’ve known for a long time that it is hard to resist taking over views and opinions of people around us. We know this as conformity. But as robots will soon be found in the home and the workplace, we were wondering if people would conform to robots,” explains Tony Belpaeme, a professor in robotics at the University of Plymouth and Ghent University. “What our results show is that adults do not conform to what the robots are saying. But when we did the experiment with children, they did. It shows children can perhaps have more of an affinity with robots than adults, which does pose the question: what if robots were to suggest, for example, what products to buy or what to think?”
The study’s authors posit that their research may be able to provide insight into how robots can be used positively within society. Although they do admit that the results raise some concerns regarding the ability of robots to also have a negative influence on young children.
Researchers at Plymouth have previously explored the positive impact robots can have in health and education settings. They’ve shown that social robots can help diabetic children accept the nature of their condition, and are currently designing a robot to support preschool children learning a second language.
“A future in which autonomous social robots are used as aids for education professionals or child therapists is not distant. In these applications, the robot is in a position in which the information provided can significantly affect the individuals they interact with,” the researchers say in Science Robotics. “A discussion is required about whether protective measures, such as a regulatory framework, should be in place that minimize the risk to children during social child-robot interaction and what form they might take so as not to adversely affect the promising development of the field.”
Image Credit: University of Plymouth