Child with a social robot

Children more prone to manipulation by robots, study finds

Image credit: University of Plymouth

A study has found that young children are far more receptive to the influence of robots than adults, with implications for how social robots may positively or negatively influence behaviour in the future.

The study was focused around adults and young children completing a task in the presence of either their human peers or a humanoid robot. The task made use of the Asch conformity experiment, which has been used for decades by psychologists to understand the effect of peer pressure on decision making. In the standard task, participants are asked to match two lines in length. Although participants completing the task alone almost always get this right, it has been repeatedly shown that participants completing the task in a group tend to follow their peers, even when they are very obviously incorrect.

“People often follow the opinions of others and we’ve known for a long time that it is hard to resist taking over views and opinions of people around us. We know this as conformity. But as robots will soon be found in the home and the workplace, we were wondering if people would conform to robots,” said Professor Tony Belpaeme of Ghent University, who co-led the study.

The study with robots demonstrated that while the adults continued to be influenced by their peers, they were resistant to being manipulated by the robot. However, children aged between seven and nine were significantly influenced by the robots.

When the children completed the task alone, they scored 87 per cent, but when they were in the presence of the humanoid robot, their test scores fell to 75 per cent, with most of their wrong responses matching those of the robot.

“What our results show is that adults do not confirm to what the robots are saying. But when we did the experiment with children, they did,” commented Belpaeme. “It shows children can perhaps have more of an affinity with robots than adults, which does pose the question: what if robots were to suggest, for example, what products to buy or what to think?”

According to the researchers, the study suggests that robots could be harnessed for good in society – such as by reinforcing positive behaviour – but similarly could have a negative influence if misused.

“A future in which autonomous social robots are used as aids for education professionals or child therapists is not distant,” the researchers concluded. “In these applications, the robot is in a position in which the information provided can significantly affect the individuals they interact with.”

“A discussion is required about whether protective measures, such as a regulatory framework, should be in place that minimises the risk to children during social child-robot interaction and what form they might take, so as not to adversely affect the promising development of the field.”

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