Kirsty considers: "Will we really buy out children robot friends in the future?"
TrooFriend tells the story of a girl called Sarah whose busy parents buy her the latest TrooFriend robot – an artificially intelligent android designed solely for the purpose of being a child’s friend. Each TrooFriend is made to look just like a human child, and each one is unique. Sarah’s TrooFriend wears a rainbow t-shirt and a red corduroy skirt. Sarah names her Ivy.
When my son was young, he asked for a robot for his birthday. We didn’t have much money but we bought him the best robot we could afford. It was a plastic, tottering, vaguely spaceman-like thing, just 35 cm tall, which could be encouraged to sing Happy Birthday or do a little dance. It was nothing like Ivy, and I can’t help but think my son must have been rather disappointed. He was a fan of Transformers and Lego Bionicles, so was probably envisioning something a little more sophisticated.
Fast forward fifteen years and here we are, living in a world where robots and artificial intelligence are becoming commonplace. Even if we don’t have a virtual assistant in our home, we probably have one on our phone, or in our car, or at the very least we know someone else who does. One friend of mine has a robot vacuum cleaner.
A quick search on the internet shows there are all kinds of ‘social robots’ beginning to be used across the world – artificially intelligent machines that interact with people or other robots as they perform their tasks. For example, a robot called Pepper works in Japanese restaurants, UK offices and a Canadian airport. Another, called Nao, plays football and works in schools. And Paro - a soft, lovable robot designed to look like a seal - comforts elderly people in care homes.
There are, of course, many potential problems with using artificial intelligence in a social setting – particularly one as delicate as befriending our children or caring for our sick and elderly relatives. Safety and privacy, for example, are complex issues which demand creative and rigorous solutions. But if these problems can be overcome it would not surprise me at all if we were buying our children robot friends in the future – ones that are more like Ivy, and less like the wobbly spaceman I bought my son fifteen years ago. Let’s hope they don’t replace human friends completely though!