Would you leave your child with a robot?

A leading robotics expert at the University of Sheffield will raise the alarm about a new generation of childcare robots being developed in Japan and tested in American schools, at the Cheltenham Science Festival today (Thursday 5 June 2008). Professor Noel Sharkey will discuss a number of ethical issues linked to the near-future applications of robots such as childcare, as well as care for the elderly and security and surveillance.A number of companies, including the Japanese giants, Sony and NEC are developing robots that may end up caring for children. Robots such as Sony´s Qrio and NEC´s PaPeRo (Partner-type Personal Robot) have been tested extensively in childcare activities. The University of California in San Diego has conducted studies of Sony´s Qrio in local schools, and have also developed their own child friendly robot, RUBI.

NEC has conducted extensive testing of a childcare version of PaPeRo with 27,000 participants. PaPeRo is capable of recognising and verbally communicating with people, sending images by mobile phone, as well as playing games and singing along with others. NEC is currently looking at applications for PaPeRo at day care centres, kindergartens and elementary schools.

Professor Sharkey said: “Children and robots are a good mix. Children love robots of every kind, they like to drive them around by remote control and they like to play games with them. Robots therefore are a great teaching aid to inspire our next generation of engineers and scientists and recent studies show that they may be a useful therapeutic aid for those with autism.”

“However I have my concerns about their use in childcare. These robots may be great for monitoring children as adults can log into the robot from the Internet or from their mobile phones. They can also direct the robot and see through its cameras and even speak to the children through the robots voice.”

“But my concern is that they may prove to be too useful. With more and more people working from home on their computers, it would be all too easy to leave the kids with a robot and watch what is going on in the corner of your computer screen. Eventually, childcare professionals may use these robots. This may be quite safe and entertaining but what kind of role model is a robot? Could this lead to a generation of social misfits? What does this say about the value placed on children in society?”

“Currently it would not be legal to use these robots to mind children in a nursery without adults being present but it would be perfectly legal to use them in the home.”

Professor Sharkey will pose some of his questions to the audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival at the event entitled Robotic World. He will be joined by Alan Winfield, mobile robotics expert at UWE, Bristol, and Piers Bizony, science author and producer, to discuss a number of ethical issues.

Notes for Editors: The event is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The Cheltenham Science Festival is a five-day celebration of science, engineering and the arts. A rare opportunity for the public to come face-to-face with the world´s leading scientists and thinkers, it annually brings together a record 26,000 members of the public and over 300 speakers to discuss, celebrate and argue about science. The interactive hands-on Discover Zone attracts over 10,000 visitors and in 2007, the schools´ programme attracted 3,500 school children.

For further information please contact: Lindsey Bird, Media Relations Manager, on 0114 2225338 or email l.bird@sheffield.ac.uk

Reference: shef.ac.uk