Fumihide Tanaka/UCSD

Metal friend.
Toddlers formed long-term bonds with the robot QRIO.

Robot Dearest?

It seems unlikely that a toddler would pass up a teddy bear for a hunk of metal. But in a new study, toddlers developed strong social bonds with robots, largely ignoring their traditional toys. The findings represent a step forward in human-robot interactions.

People's bonds with their pets tend to strengthen over time, but most available robots geared toward interacting with people, such as Sony's mechanical puppy AIBO, have tended to lose their appeal within about 10 hours. Eager to break the so-called 10-hour barrier, Fumihide Tanaka, a robotics researcher at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and colleagues tested the Sony QRIO, a state-of-the-art humanoid robot that can recognize faces and respond to touch.

The researchers chose toddlers for the tests because they "have no preconceived notions of robots," Tanaka says. Children at UCSD's daycare facility interacted with QRIO for 45 sessions averaging 50 minutes each over 5 months. The sessions were videotaped, and student volunteers evaluated the closeness of the interactions. The team also gauged the children's "haptic contact"--how much and where they touched the robot--and compared it with how they treated toys and other children.

During the first 27 sessions, the robot was responsive to the children, giggling when its head was touched. The children enjoyed interacting with the robot during this period, the team reports.

The researchers then restricted QRIO's behavior to a more predictable, nonresponsive dance routine for 15 sessions, and children's interest declined. At the end of the study, the team reinstated its full repertoire for three sessions, and interest picked up. Programming the robot to respond to the children was key to engaging them, the team reports online 5 November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The children also came to prefer hugging QRIO more than they preferred hugging a teddy bear or an inanimate robot doll, and they touched QRIO carefully, in the same way that they touched other children, rather than bashing it as they did the doll.

Even though he sent a command to the robot about once every 2 minutes, Tanaka says "the results imply that current robot technology is surprisingly close to achieving [sustained] autonomous bonding and socialization with human toddlers."

Other experts are more cautious. "The authors are drawing general conclusions ... beyond what the data alone suggest," says Nathan Freier, a technologist and social scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. According to Freier, "haptic contact ...cannot stand alone as an indicator of bonding or socialization." But he calls the study an "excellent foundation" for future studies into childhood development and technology design.

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