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Who do children trust more, robots or humans? Scientists found out

In our increasingly digital world, children encounter a vast array of information online, much of it unverified and generated by robots and artificial intelligence (AI) sources.

A pivotal skill for children in this environment is discerning the reliability of these sources, a key component in developing critical thinking.

Children, robots and trust

A recent study sheds light on this issue. Titled ‘Younger, not older, children trust an inaccurate human informant more than an inaccurate robot informant,’ the research explores how children aged three to five gauge trustworthiness in both human and robot informants.

Dr. Li Xiaoqian is a research scholar at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

She, along with her PhD supervisor, Professor Yow Wei Quin, head of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at SUTD, co-authored the study. They found that children’s trust is influenced by an informant’s past accuracy.

“Children do not just trust anyone to teach them labels, they trust those who were reliable in the past. We believe that this selectivity in social learning reflects young children’s emerging understanding of what makes a good (reliable) source of information,” explained Li Xiaoqian.

“The question at stake is how young children use their intelligence to decide when to learn and whom to trust.”

How the study was conducted

The study involved participants from Singapore preschools, such as ChildFirst, Red SchoolHouse, and Safari House.

Divided into ‘younger’ and ‘older’ groups based on the median age of 4.58 years, these children interacted with either a human or robot informant. These informants provided either accurate or inaccurate labels for objects like ‘ball’ or ‘book’.

To measure trust, the researchers observed if the children accepted new information from these informants. The robot used was NAO by SoftBank Robotics, a humanoid robot with a human-like but robotic voice.

To ensure consistency, the human informant mirrored the robot’s movements. An experimenter was also present to facilitate the process and ensure the child was comfortable.

What the team learned

The findings revealed that children trusted informants — human or robot — who had previously provided accurate information. However, they were hesitant to trust informants with a history of inaccuracies, particularly if the informant was a robot.

Additionally, younger children were more likely to trust an unreliable human over an unreliable robot, while older children tended to distrust unreliable informants, regardless of their nature.

“These results implicate that younger and older children may have different selective trust strategies, especially the way they use informants’ reliability and identity cues when deciding who to trust,” said Dr. Li.

“Together with other research on children’s selective trust, we show that as children get older, they may increasingly rely on reliability cues to guide their trust behavior.”

Previous studies indicate that children consider various factors, like age, familiarity, and language, to assess an informant’s reliability.

Younger children might emphasize identity cues more, while older children focus more on the substance of the information provided.

Future research on children and robots

This study is unique in its exploration of children’s perceptions of robots compared to humans and their corresponding trust behaviors.

“Addressing these questions will provide a unique perspective on the development of trust and social learning among children who are growing up alongside various sources of information, including social robots,” described Prof Yow.

The research has significant implications for educational methods, especially as robots and AI tools become more common in classrooms. Children’s perceptions of robots as trustworthy sources could evolve with increased exposure to smart machines.

“Designers should consider the impact of perceived competence when building robots and other AI-driven educational tools for young children,” emphasized Professor Yow.

“Recognizing the developmental changes in children’s trust of humans versus robots can guide the creation of more effective learning environments, ensuring that the use of technologies aligns with children’s developing cognitive and social needs.”

In summary, future research might expand beyond word learning to other areas, such as tool usage, emotional expression, and episodic memory. The current findings will be influential in design pedagogy.

The full study was published in the journal Child Development.


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