Robot Nannies: Should Gadgets Raise Your Kids?

These friendly helpers were the trend this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

20 January 2017

If you’re a parent, you probably know how expensive hiring a nanny can be. To help out, companies are coming out with high-tech alternatives. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Kuri, Aristotle, and other gadgets were on display.

Kuri is a roving robot that roams around the home to assist with tasks such as waking up the kids when it’s time to get ready for school, telling bedtime stories, and singing the children’s favorite songs. When parents are not home, they can view their children through the robot’s built-in cameras, which they can monitor via a mobile app.

Aristotle, which I consider to be a baby monitor on steroids, is similar to the Amazon Echo digital assistant, only the voice-activation technology is designed to communicate with your child. For example, Aristotle automatically recognizes when a baby wakes up when it makes a sound and can soothe it to sleep with a lullaby or turn on a night-light. The device also can alert you when the supply of diapers is low. What’s more, Aristotle can play games with toddlers, such as having them guess which animal noise it is making or the shape displayed on its screen.

Those are just two of the dozens of robot helpers that appeared on the CES showroom floor.

But such devices beg the question of whether having technology help raise children is beneficial, or can it have unintended consequences? To provide some insight into this trend, The Institute interviewed IEEE Life Senior Member Jim Isaak, vice president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

As a parent, do you think bringing robot nannies into the home can be helpful?

These technologies could be designed to help children develop independence and critical-thinking skills, as well as explore their own unique talents. And more likely than not, parents are going to use these devices to mirror their own intentions, such as having the device remind kids to practice the piano or help them with their homework. Furthermore, the robot might notice that the child is particularly gifted at quantum mechanics, and notify the parents of her skills.

Of course, kids could also become so enthralled by their robots that they prefer interaction with them over their parents, and may find it more difficult to develop human connections. The children may even become dependent on the robot, especially since it will know them better than others could.

What aspects of the technology should parents be wary of?

These devices come with obvious hacking risks, such as people listening in or watching your child, whether a neighbor or a government agency. But some vulnerabilities are subtler than that. For example, a device like the Aristotle could potentially sell or promote products to young children, either explicitly or implicitly, when telling stories or making recommendations.

It may also be difficult to wean children away from a robot as they get older. Children already have a difficult time giving up their favorite dolls, blankets, or even imaginary friends. What parents will do to disconnect their kids from their robot nannies is an open question.

Will it be possible to replace nannies altogether with robots?

It will be some time before human observation and judgment can be replaced by artificial intelligence. Robots cannot protect children from all possible dangerous situations.

The potential to have a robot watch over a child raises ethical concerns as well. If a robot accidently hurts a child, how will this be handled in court? Conversely, how should the robot respond if it witnesses child abuse in the home? Should it be programmed to call the authorities? These and many other questions have yet to be answered.

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