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May 16, 2002

Can mechanical pets teach kids life lessons?

Pets can help children learn about life, love and death. UW researchers are studying whether today’s robot pets can do those things, too, or whether they fall short when it comes to stimulating a preschooler’s moral and intellectual growth.


The researchers — a psychologist and a computer and information scientist — say their findings could affect how society views not just sophisticated interactive dogs but also the growing array of other “smart” devices that increasingly chatter at people in their homes and cars.


In the study, 80 preschoolers spend 40 minutes apiece with AIBO — Sony’s $1,000 canine — while researchers ask questions and observe.


The youngsters (ages 3–5) cuddle and “train” the amazingly frisky AIBO much as they would a real dog. Missing, say the researchers, are the feedback and consequences that come with handling a live animal.


“It’s not a real, reciprocal relationship,” said Peter Kahn, a UW research associate professor of psychology. “You don’t have to feed AIBO, and he doesn’t really care about you, even if it seems like he does.”


Co-researcher Batya Friedman, an associate professor in the UW’s Information School, said AIBO and its brethren have gotten increasingly lifelike, thanks to software and sensors that allow them to “learn” and interact. Even young children know perfectly well that AIBO is not a live pooch, but its fluid movements, realistic responses and simulated emotions make it a very different animal from, say, a plush toy.


To understand how AIBO differs from stuffed dogs, the researchers record what children say to each and, more importantly, what they do. Kids in the study often cuddle stuffed animals, but they also toss, squish and sit on them. With AIBO, on the other hand, the tots tend to touch the robot gently, pet it behind the ears and stroke its back — similar to the way children treat a real dog.


“With a stuffed animal, children tend to have a rich fantasy life,” said Friedman. “With AIBO, it could be confusing the boundaries between what’s real and imaginary because you get clues that prompt a real social rapport.”


Friedman and Kahn (with colleagues at Purdue University) also are putting AIBO through its paces at the other end of the age spectrum — with nursing home residents, in a study to see whether robotic pets could provide some of the benefits of live ones without the worries.


“We are hopeful there will be real benefits for the elderly, who may no longer be capable of caring for real animals,” Kahn said. “However, with children, in those early stages of development, we have concerns about what happens when they fall prey to accepting robotic companionship without the developmental benefits that real companionship involves.”


These AIBO studies are part of a larger research program by the two scholars to understand the psychological effect of technology that augments the human experience of the world.


“In the coming years,” Friedman said, “robotic pets will become more technologically sophisticated — more animal-like. As they do, our research suggests that they will evoke more and more psychological responses from humans. Is that a good thing?”


Summaries of this and related research projects are posted at http://www.ischool.washington.edu/vsd/. The AIBO home page is http://www.us.aibo.com