Whether something is living or not is a crucial distinction, and it's one that children already understand by the age of five. What then do children make of the latest generation of robot pets - toys designed to be as "alive" as possible? It's a surprisingly little researched area, but with the shuttle rate of technological advance in toy-land, it's one that's bound to become increasingly relevant.
Gail Melson and colleagues filmed 72 kids, aged 7 to 15 years, playing for 45 minutes with a Sony Aibo robot dog and for 45 minutes playing with a real-life pooch of the Australian Shepherd breed. The Sony 210 Aibo dog was the most advanced robot dog at the time this research was conducted. It was capable of walking after a pink ball, kicking and headbutting it. It could also shake itself, sit down, lie down, offer its paw, learn, and display positive and negative emotion via lights.
As well as filming the children, the researchers also asked them questions about the biological (e.g. does X eat?), mental (e.g. can X feel happy?), and social (e.g. does X like you?) properties of the two dogs, as well as their moral standing (e.g. is it OK or not OK to hit X?).
The picture that emerged was mixed. On the one hand, the children clearly saw the real dog as more real and alive than the robot dog. They also examined the robot dog as if it were an object rather than a creature - prodding it and picking it up. On the other hand, there were signs that the children saw the robot dog as more than a mere toy. For example, over 80 per cent of the children spoke and gave commands to the robot dog as often as they did to the real dog. Nearly half the children petted the robot dog gently at least once, despite its metallic surface. Moreover, the children were no more likely to say it was okay to hit the robot dog than they were to say it was okay to hit the real dog! In all cases there was a trend for older children to see the robot dog as less real.
"These children were surprisingly willing to treat the robot dog as 'dog like'," the researchers concluded. "...[S]uch findings may be evidence of the emergence of a new ontological category, neither artifact nor living being."
Melson, G., Kahn Jr., P., Beck, A., Friedman, B., Roberts, T., Garrett, E., & Gill, B. (2009). Children's behavior toward and understanding of robotic and living dogs. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30 (2), 92-102 DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2008.10.011
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.