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In today’s ever-changing world, the rampant use of various technology and robots have become an indispensable part of our daily lives. Since the Industrial Revolution, robots have been used in manufacturing and automotive industries. With the rapid advancement in technology, the use of robots is increasing at an exponential rate.
From the graph above, it is evident that the world robot population has increased by almost 2 folds from 4.49million in 2006 to 8.37million in 2010. Domestic service, educational and leisure robots have contributed to the large increase in the use of robots in the 21st century. International Federation of Robotics (IFR) has forecasted a USD$17 billion in sales for the robot market worldwide by 2013. (http://www.ifr.org/) Hence, with the multi-faceted use of robots currently existing in our daily lives, one can expect robots specialising in childcare to be a part of reality in the near future.
Children have always been fascinated by robots. This is reflected in the increasing number of students taking part in robotics competitions. Moreover, when a bomb disposal robot was deployed in a village of Iraq, it caught the attention of the village children who surrounded it with great interest. Studies have also shown that the interaction between robots and children have yielded positive effects. As a result, robots have also been used as tools for educational purposes.
With the current population trend moving from single-income to dual-income families, there is an increasing need for parents to provide the necessary childcare services for their children while they are both busy at work. This trend coupled with the evolving use of robots has sparked the research on childcare robots as a means to resolving the issue of juggling with raising a child concurrently with providing for the family. The potential of childcare robots is immense and has thus generated a lot of hype. Not only can it have a huge impact on society but it also has the potential to bring about radical changes in our everyday lives.
The concept of childcare robots has existed for decades. Proto-types of childcare robots are already available in the world today due to technological advancements which have minimised the cost of building and assembling a robot. Currently, there are 14 companies in Japan and Korea that have developed childcare robots.
The PaPeRo is an example of a childcare robot which has been developed by NEC, a leading Japanese electronics company who is a pioneer in the development of childcare robots.
It has been designed to live and interact with people through its autonomous and communication functions. One of its primary functions is to protect a child and prevent him from harm’s way. This can be done through mobile monitoring whereby the robot has cameras installed in its eyes which allow working parents to monitor their child’s movement at home through their laptops while they are at work. The parent will have full control of the robot and can navigate it around the house to ensure that his or her child is under constant supervision even if he or she is not physically there. The PaPeRo can also be programmed to look out for potential hazardous situations and consequently prevent the child at home from becoming a victim of it. Its autonomous function and obstacle avoidance capability thereby allow working parents to focus on their work due to its nature of independent mobility.
Although childcare robots may solve the woes of modern working parents, one cannot help but ask how credible is the robot in ensuring the safety of the child at home? Who should be responsible in the case whereby the child still gets hurt under the care of the robot?
Childcare robots may have dire consequences on the child if they are not employed with caution. Previously, parents had to juggle between their family and work. As the concept of childcare robot surfaced, it liberated parents as the primary caregivers from choosing between their work commitments and looking after their child. This would result in less time spent together and the mutual bonding between parent and child will be lost in the process. The primary upbringing of a child thence no longer rests upon the shoulders of the parents but in the hands of a childcare robot instead.
From a societal perspective, a parent’s primary responsibility is to provide for their offspring and protect them from harms’ way. Parents should also impart the necessary knowledge and skills to survive in their later years during the developmental stages of their children in their adolescence. Parents may thus be shirking their primary responsibilities by passing on their role as caregivers to childcare robots. Instead of breastfeeding, which is natural and healthy for a child and also aids in psychological bonding, a robot is created to “breastfeed” with powdered milk. This is physically not healthy for a baby and would be a worrying trend to society. The role of caregivers is no longer clearly defined between humans and robots. One can only wonder what kind of psychological impact this may potentially have on a child when he is brought up by an autonomous robot made of steel instead of his own warm-blooded biological parents.
“As robots become increasingly popular and available, should we devise international ethics guidelines for their use?”
The issue of formalised guidelines also arises with the extensive use of childcare robots in the future. To protect a child from negligence and abuse, there will be a need for governmental and international bodies to regulate and lay down ethical guidelines ensuring the fair and just use of childcare robots. By regulating its use, it could reiterate the fact that parents are still the primary caregivers of their child and childcare robots should only be a tool to assist them and not replace them. One should not hold the robots totally liable to the care of one’s child.
Children playing with robots –
Studies have shown that leaving a child with minimal human contact would retard the mental and intellectual development of the child. (http://www.education.umd.edu/EDHD/faculty/Fox/publications/94.pdf)
Although the child may develop an emotional attachment to the robot, his cognitive development may be impaired as he may be spending most of his childhood with a childcare robot. Furthermore, the bonding between a child and robot may mislead the child into thinking that such a relationship is real and identical to that with human beings. The impairing of his cognitive abilities coupled with the inability to distinguish between human and robotic relationships may thus lead the child to face problems interacting with other children. Consequently, the child may alienate himself from the rest of society in response to the ostracising he potentially faces from his peers.
Ultimately, robots are machines that face the usual technical problems of malfunctioning and may become obsolete over time. The child may “outgrow” the robot as his needs change at such a rapid rate. The childcare robot may only be programmed to handle toddlers and infants instead of school going children and hence it may become inadequate in looking after a child as they grow older. A child raised by machines may be detrimental to society and contribute to the degradation of healthy human relationships in the generations to come.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that childcare robots are largely beneficial to enhancing childcare. Even without the existence of robots, there are still cases of child abuse and negligence by parents who have shirked their responsibility in caring for their child. In such cases, a robot may actually do an even better job in ensuring that the child is well taken care of. As research on childcare robots intensifies, the robot can be programmed to perform more sophisticated tasks, inter alia, expressing emotions and reacting differently to a wide vocabulary of words and range of feelings. However, in spite of the hype and benefits of childcare robots, I personally feel that it would be of best interest to society that they should only be used as a tool to assist in childcare and not replace the quintessential role of parents.
In conclusion, although the potential and benefits of childcare robots are limitless in the future, it is critical for us human beings to take a step back and ponder over the underlying ethical and legal issues that arise from their use. There should be a concerted effort by governments and a regulatory body to create a set of common and concrete guidelines to regulate the use of childcare robots. However, I feel that these are but mere infant steps to a realm of human co-existing with artificial intelligence.
“I care about our young people, and I wish them great success, because they are our Hope for the Futureâ€¦” – Dave Barry
Youths are the key to our future. It is imperative then that children ought to be moulded in the footsteps of a human being than that of a cold piece of metal work.
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