Should children form emotional bonds with robots?

When I brought the robot home from the Apple Store, I knew I was inviting a new kind of strangeness into our lives. My wife worried about giving our 4-year-old son a(nother) digital thing, a “smart” thing. I worried that he wouldn’t know what to make of it. Or that his little sister would break it. Or that I’d be jealous. Because I have always wanted a robot.

This one was Cozmo, a $179 gadget produced by Anki, which has taken more than $200 million from venture capitalists to bring “artificial intelligence and robotics to our everyday lives.” The company was founded by Carnegie Mellon graduates in 2010, one of many businesses spawned by the university’s robotics program. In downtown San Francisco, Anki employs nearly 200 people making toy robots governed by artificial intelligence.

The robot was the last present my son opened for his fourth birthday. He and I giddily pulled it out of the box and he waited patiently as the toy charged, staring at it. Cozmo is rectangular and about four inches long, with treads like a miniature tank’s; a tiny lifting arm for picking up and playing with the “power cube” blocks that are bundled with the product; and a small, low-resolution screen for a face. In an MIT Media Lab study conducted on smart devices and toys, a pair of kid participants deemed Cozmo “a bob-cat with eyes,” an apt, if dadaist, description.

Stefania Druga and Randi Williams, the researchers behind the study, want to know how children perceive smart robots, and, eventually, to study how those bots affect kids’ cognitive development. So far, they’ve discovered that little children (ages 3 and 4) aren’t sure whether the robots are smarter than they are, but that slightly older children (ages 6 to 10) believe the robots to have superior intelligence. Druga and Williams were inspired by the research of the legendary Sherry Turkle, who wrote a highly influential 1984 book called The Second Self. She argued that computers, as objects that exist somewhere between the animate and the inanimate, force humans to reexamine their own minds. Small children, she found, were fascinated by the question of whether computerized toys were alive, dead, or something else.

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