Humanoid Robots Have Power to Shape Children's Opinions, According to New Research

A team of scientists from the University of Plymouth are measuring the social and psychological effects of humanoid robots on children.
Mario L. Major

From Milo, a humanoid robot who assists autistic children with speech development and comfortably orienting themselves to their social environment, to the line of friendly AI-driven bots, like Artibo, aimed at developing an appreciation and understanding of engineering and coding for young learners, robots are inhabiting the lives of children more and more in recent years, and most of us acknowledge their benefits. Looking at the deeper issues, however, what are the potential effects on a child’s personality development?

A group of researchers at the University of Plymouth set out to answer this question, focusing on the realm of how children versus adults form opinions, in the presence of humanoid robots versus humans.

They conducted qualitative research that utilized the Asch Paradigm, a classic social psychology setup which tests the effects of majority group opinion on research subjects—in other words observing how willing people would be to go along simply because of others around.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the adult subjects were more difficult to sway. Their findings for the children in the seven to nine age group, however, was a tendency to copy the answers given by the robots, producing an overall decrease of 12% on the test given to them in the presence of the robots, dropping from 87% to 75%.


The results appeared in an article, titled "Children conform, adults resist: A robot group induced peer pressure on normative social conformity", and was published in the Science Robotics journal this week. 

University of Plymouth and Ghent University Robotics Professor Tony Belpaeme interpreted the meaning of the results, offering theories behind the shifting loyalties of the younger subjects:

“People often follow the opinions of others and we’ve known for a long time that it is hard to resist taking over views and opinions of people around us. We know this as conformity. But as robots will soon be found in the home and the workplace, we were wondering if people would conform to robots,” adding, “What our results show is that adults do not conform to what the robots are saying. But when we did the experiment with children, they did. It shows children can perhaps have more of an affinity with robots than adults, which does pose the question: what if robots were to suggest, for example, what products to buy or what to think?”

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Robots As a Broad-based Learning and Educational Tool in the Future

The value of this research is that it clearly demonstrates the influence of humanoid androids, but more relevantly, it also opens up the discussion about the enormous impact that robots will have in shaping the world of young people.

Learning and development are two crucial areas in which robots will play a more active role in the lives of children, and the body of research centered around exploring their application in strengthening STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) skills has been growing.

This means that educators and scientists alike are embracing a positive and proactive approach which focuses on accepting the reality of robotics and developing the best strategies for its successful implementation within various educational curricula.

The research was published in Science Robotics.

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