A Mom's Take on Toddlers' "Acceptance" of Robot

Loraine Lawson

My daughter has a toy plush possum of which she's very fond. She describes it as her pet -- much to the dog's chagrin -- and calls it "Todd." She takes Todd the Possum everywhere. Unless, of course, I catch him sneaking out of the house first.


She's so fond of Todd, his fur has taken on that not-so-clean look and has even begun to smell like an actual possum -- the kind you find along the side of the road. She's even lobbying me to buy Todd a boat as a Christmas present.


I mention this not because I like to tell tales about my daughter -- although, duh, I do -- but rather to inform what I'm about to share with you.


It seems scientists are just giddy over a recent, long-term study on the interaction between toddlers and robots. According to New Scientist, researchers introduced a two-foot-tall robot called QRIO (pronounced curio) into a classroom of tots 18 months to two years old. This robot had some unusual mannerisms, as robots go -- it giggled when touched and did not even attempt to entertain the children constantly, though it did interact by waving, eye contact and lying down when its batteries died.


Eventually, say the scientists, the toddlers accepted QRIO as one of their own -- touching it, hugging it, covering it up and generally "helping" it.


And this last part is precisely why mothers are needed in the workplace -- especially the science lab. I've spent mornings with rooms full of toddlers, and I'm telling you right now, being treated as one of their own is a mixed blessing at best and, frankly, open to misinterpretation.


As a rule, toddlers aren't exactly the most, shall we say, selfless beings on the face of the Earth. They spend a lot of time running into or sitting on top of each other. While technically they're aware there are other children in the room, give them a few minutes and they'll treat each other with the same dignity afforded a chair. They'll steal toys from one another -- wide eyed with innocence the whole time -- and be completely confounded as to why the child who held the toy is now crying or why they're suddenly hearing the "sharing" speech again.


So, given how they truly treat one another, when scientists say QRIO was accepted as one of their own, I confess -- I'm a bit skeptical as to the significance of that statement.


Still, there are some signs the researcher's glee might not be just a failure to appreciate toddler culture. The children did treat QRIO with more respect than his inanimate robot buddy, Robby, although, really, is he a robot if he doesn't move at all? They also responded less to QRIO when it danced nonstop than when it interacted more sporadically. And who can blame them for that? Nobody, at any age, likes a showoff.


The goal of the study was to determine what makes robots hold human attention for more than a few hours, which is typically how long complex electronics hold anyone's attention. Ultimately, a robot that captivates children could be used as a classroom helper -- perhaps with autistic children -- according to the article.


If QRIO is the first step toward a classroom helper, then I'd say researchers have a long way to go. Perhaps they should ask Todd the Possum for a few pointers on how to capture a preschooler's attention. He doesn't giggle when touched, but after two years of playtime and the promise of a real floating boat, Todd's definitely got QRIO beat for longevity and consideration.

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