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Tamagotchi is a digital pet that was first released in 1996. The pet starts out as an egg on a small screen which hatches into a pet.
From then on, the ‘owner’ has to take care of the pet by feeding it, taking care of it and playing with it. Failure to do all these could make the pet unhappy or sick. It could even die.
The death bit is what made some psychologists uncomfortable. It was too human. People would form deep emotional connections to these virtual pets – what researchers came to call the Tamagotchi effect – and they would be really distressed when they died.
And that’s what some experts are worried about when it comes to robotic toys for kids.
They have become very popular in the last few years. There are toy robotic dogs, cats and other kinds of robot pets.
Companies advertise them as great alternatives to real pets for kids who are not old enough to take care of a pet or are not allowed to own a pet.
But as kids become more exposed to these realistic ‘pets’, should parents worry about them getting too attached at the expense of real human connections?
Robotic Toys and Emotional Attachment
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has come up five principles to guide the safe development of robotics.
The 4th principle states that:
Robots are manufactured artefacts. They should not be designed in a deceptive way to exploit vulnerable users; instead their machine nature should be transparent.
In other words, a robot should not be designed in such a way that it can be confused for a living thing.
For you and me it might seem easy to recognize that a robot pet, even one with synthetic fur on it, is a robot and not a real pet.
But experts are more worried about kids and the elderly (especially those with dementia) getting too attached to robots and expecting the robot to reciprocate.
This is especially the case with modern robotic toys that are able to express ‘emotions’ using advanced AI technology.
Toys like the new Cozmo by Anki, Zoomer Puppy and WowWee ChiP can express sadness when you don’t play with them, anger when you mishandle them and happiness when you engage them.
Experts are worried that these manufactured emotions could manipulate kids’ emotions.
Another worry is that kids will forgo attachment with real people in favor of friendships with robots. This could cause emotional and psychological problems as they grow up.
An Overblown Worry…For now
After an initial period of excitement, their kids treated the robot like any other toy they owned. They still found TV and Harry Potter books to be far more interesting.
So there is little reason to worry that your kid will become too attached to a robotic dog instead of spending time with her friends.
If anything, a robotic pet can be beneficial and not just in terms of play and fun but also good manners. Some pets get angry or sad when mistreated, which can teach kids to be more thoughtful about how they treat pets and other people.
But don’t rest easy yet.
The probable reason for this lack of deep attachment is that these robotic pets are still pretty much basic. They are easily recognizable as pets even to kids.
For kids, a robot cat or pup is as much alive as the teddy bear they cuddle with when they go to sleep. It’s all in their imagination.
But as AI and robotics get better, there is danger of things getting too real. We might have robots puppies look and behave like real puppies.
While such developments are still decades away, it’s still something worth thinking about.
How will it affects kids’ emotional development? Will these robots replace real pets and real human friends?
I don’t know the answer to these questions and neither do experts.