When I watched the movie "Her" about an intelligent computer or saw life-like robots in the show "Westworld," I was fascinated by the idea of artificial intelligence and humanoid robots. It was very futuristic and Jetson-like. But I never thought that the sci-fi future was right here, right now.
Turns out I was wrong.
Thanks to leaps and bounds in the robotics field, companion bots are now hitting the market with promises of more to come next year. There’s even a robot designed to take care of your children. Yes, really.
Let’s face it, kids require a lot of attention. Personally, I feel like I'm the never-ending entertainment committee. My toddler won’t even let me even shower or poop by myself. So when I heard about iPal, the robots for kids, I decided to dig a little deeper.
This elf-like robot is part friend, part-nanny, and part cartoon. It's the same height as a five-year old so it can see eye-to-eye with your child. It can memorize your child’s emotions and monitor it for depression, loneliness and happiness. If your child is sad, it will try to cheer him or her up. And if they're happy, they'll share in the happiness and play games like rock, paper, scissors.
It can read stories or provide entertainment with the built-in tablet that's integrated into its humanoid chest. And if the parent is out running a quick errand, then they can call into the same tablet which doubles as a video chat and surveillance system. The built-in camera also records pictures and videos to monitor growth, which is then later uploaded to a cloud so parents can keep track of changes and have a digital album of memories.
Phones and TV screens have already created an emotional chasm in families and relationships. Robot companions would do far more damage.
According to founder Jiping Wang, “It could keep children ages 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.”
I'll admit, all this sounds great in theory. I could finally take a shower in peace, maybe even pee in silence. Or if I'm feeling wild, I could get out of the house altogether and let the iPal take care of the kiddo. This all sounds luxurious, but also sounds a little creepy, very disconnected, and frankly, ethically fuzzy.
Why are parents even buying such a product in the first place? I get that childcare is crazy expensive and emotionally taxing, but there’s something to be said about having a human hug and conversation. Phones and TV screens have already created an emotional chasm in families and relationships. Robot companions would do far more damage.
Noel Sharkey, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield argues, “[A] number of severe attachment disorders could reap havoc in our society” with the advent of robot nannies.
Sure, it's one thing for robots to work on an assembly line, but what does it mean if a robot is all of a sudden taking on the maternal responsibilities of being in tune with my child to the extent that I no longer have to worry if they are happy or sad? And God forbid, there’s glitch in the system and the robo-nanny goes psycho.
The future is being exceedingly driven by technology, and this is getting in the way of basic human acts. All of those small moments that build a relationship between people have been hijacked by smartphones and screens. I can't imagine what it would mean if micro-moments or “just a few hours a day” of a child’s life get outsourced to a robot, too. What would that mean for the most sacred of human bonds between parent and child?
At that point, why even bother having kids at all? Why not just have a robo-child?