Children’s Social and Moral Relationships with a Humanoid Robot

Kahn, P. H., Kanda, T., Ishiguro, H., Freier, N. G., Severson, R. L., Gill, B. T., Ruckert, J. H., & Shen, S. (2012). “Robovie, you’ll have to go into the closet now”: Children’s social and moral relationships with a humanoid robot. Developmental Psychology, 48(2), 303-314.

Based on the prediction that human-like robots will become increasingly present in our lives in the future, the authors sought to investigate the types of social and moral relationships children are likely to form with these robots. Previous research has shown that adults interact socially with robots. For example, they give humanoid robots the appropriate amount of personal space and will provide assistance when the robot requests help. Studies have also shown that children and adults will form meaningful relationships with a robotic dog. Kahn and colleagues exposed 90 children (ages 9, 12, and 15) to a humanoid robot, “Robovie,” for 15 minutes, during which time the child and robot had a series of interactions (e.g., introductions, shaking hands, sharing interests, playing a game, the child providing assistance to the robot, and hugging). The interaction is interrupted by the experimenter’s announcement that it is time for the child’s interview and so the robot must go into the closet – to which the robot protests. Interviews were videotaped and coded for verbal and physical behaviors. Results indicated that most children believed that Robovie had mental states (e.g., feelings, intelligence), was a social being (e.g., could be a friend, a comfort if sad, trusted with secrets), and was a moral other (e.g., deserved fair treatment, acted autonomously). These beliefs were weaker among the older children, although more than half of the 15 year olds viewed Robovie as having mental, social and, to some extent, moral characteristics. The authors raised the question of whether human-robot interaction might someday have an impact on the development of the unique forms of reciprocity and morality that characterize human-human interactions.

Making Connections

Child development
Moral reasoning

Media Supplement

For a discussion of how psychology is used to make robots more human-friendly see this NPR podcast. [12 min 59 sec]

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