Should Robots Be Treated Like People? Kids Say “Yes” – Sort Of

Photo by George Steinmetz


Would you let a robot nanny watch your children?  Or let a robot tutor teach them?  These scenarios sound like something out of science fiction, but they may become a reality in the not-so-distant future.  And as robots improve and develop the capability to perform social tasks, new questions are raised about how humans view and interact with them.

Psychologists recently did a study on this issue and their findings have been published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology. In the study, children ages nine, twelve, and fifteen played a game of “I Spy” with a remotely-controlled robot named Robovie.  Midway into the game, researchers interrupted Robovie’s turn to tell it that the game was over and told the robot to go into a storage closet.  The experimenter controlling Robovie then made the robot protest by claiming that it wasn’t fair to end the game early.

When interviewed later, the majority of the children sided with Robovie, agreeing that the robot had been treated unjustly.  Additional questions revealed that the children believed the robot had feelings and should be protected from psychological harm.  However, most of them did not think that the robot should be considered independent — in other words, that it was fine for the robot to be bought or sold.  They also did not believe that the robot should be allowed civil rights, such as the right to vote, or that the robot should be compensated for labor it performed.

Researchers concluded that children’s relationship with robots in the future may turn out to be “significant and meaningful,”  which means we may need to think in a new way about what it means to be human — and to be close, but not quite.

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Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.