What I Learned During My Brief Existence as a Robot

What I learned during my brief existence as a robot

Children approach getting to know a robot like they would approach a new friend.

They asked it what its favourite food was, if it had friends, what its family was like. Robot-specific questions — like what was the square root of a gigantic number — came later. In essence, children were extending empathy to the robot, treating it like an equal. This is positive: the children didn’t have impulses to treat the robot unfairly. This human tendency for empathy toward robots has been shown and discussed in previous studies (Darling et al., 2015; Scheutz, 2011). This is an interesting design question: what types of robots do we want to design, given that we feel empathy for them my default?

1st graders are young enough to have great suspension of disbelief.

They had a willingness to believe that the robot was actually alive. Not one of them said out loud that they thought that a human was operating the robot, nor connected my sitting at the control computer behind the curtain with the robot. The presence of fiction and fantasy in human-robot-interaction, and its effect on the design choices of the roboticist, has been previously discussed (Duffy & Zawieska, 2012). What degree of fantasy is useful to the user? What degree of fantasy is ethical to preserve?

Some kids were shy, and some were not.

It would be interesting to see whether the children who were more shy toward the robot, are also shy toward humans. Do they relate to robots in similar way as to humans? Do children approach robots in the same way they do unfamiliar humans? Are they suspicious of them? How about adults? The larger discussion around this topic is if we can affect the general level of trust toward robots by varying design parameters of the robot, how should the trust be calibrated for each application?

Robots could be more suitable for select users.

One conversation in particular stuck in my mind for days after. It was the one prominently shown in the documentary’s opening shots. The child in question was open to talking about what they thought was the difference between humans and robots, what made robots robots, and what made humans humans. The fact that while robots live forever until they’re turned off, humans need freedom from life. Interestingly, the child’s teacher remarked that this child did not typically stand out in a traditional school environment. Something about the robot engaged the child differently than a class atmosphere. This points to the potential of robots being efficient learning tools for different types of learners.

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