Are “Crib Robots” Good For Babies?

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Brilliantly engineered, intelligent, cute, engaging “crib robots” will soon be marketed for infants and toddlers, but will most likely affect brain wiring for core personality and other human qualities. Avoid such devices, despite the fascination, until we know they are safe in the long run.

According to recent NY Times stories, major toy companies are developing and introducing interactive digital media for babies and toddlers (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/technology/in-a-fisher-price-lab-apps-are-childs-play-prototype.html?_r=2 and http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/04/after-14-years-furby-has-returned/?nl=technology&emc=cta4_20120712#comments).

I call these toys CRIB ROBOTS, and as a child psychiatrist am urgently alarmed about their potential damage to the underpinnings of the future personalities of babies and youngsters in their intended market. This article is for stimulating general discussion and raising awareness and does not necessarily comprehensively treat this subject.

This big news should come as no surprise and can too easily escape our notice. But we should become aware and alarmed. In our everyday lives, we have already become insidiously attached to and depend for our lives and livelihoods on disembodied robots that inhabit, make, and run our elevators, appliances, and cars, digital media, and those that mediate our conversations.

While thinking machines have provided many benefits in business, industry, and the military, they have wreaked relative chaos in human relationships that we are slowly working through. We did not anticipate the cybercrime, sexting, gaming, cyberbullying, multitasking, endless power struggles with our teens, disrupted family life, dumbing down of youth, and other sensational happenings that are capturing our attention and are probably yet but tips of an iceberg.

And this digital media mess is coming into the nursery. Some folks are already doing it, and soon all parents will be urged to put embodied or disembodied (tablets, etc.) crib robots into babies’ hands. Merchandisers will spin these as expert-approved, convenient, fun, and effortless ways to reduce the uncertainty and mystery of dealing with infants, and instead engage, calm, educate, babysit and jumpstart their development (despite the Baby Mozart debacle and despite the reality that in natural processes, “some good things just cannot be hurried before their time,” as every good winemaker and parent knows.)

Already, smart toys are being marketed that simulate a mother’s presence with a recording of her voice to soothe Baby. It is now clear that very young children’s play will become a marketplace for sophisticated, interactive media devices and intelligent toys. We must carefully consider how these may impact our children.

We Build Robots to Be Great Fakers

Dr. Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) and her MIT colleagues have been breaking new ground in the study of human / machine interactions. These pioneer scientists have seen how elders and children become easily attached to “relational artifacts”—interactive computer-based dolls programmed to show and vocalize “feelings” and even respond to touch and tone of voice. Young and old alike nurture these humanoid robots as if they are alive. Children struggle to understand the differences between these digital objects and actual living creatures, and sometimes regard the two as interchangeable.The robot engineers built in sufficiently animal-like movement to fool brain centers that identify living from inanimate motion.

These mechanical pets are helpful to the lonely elderly. Dr. Turkle reports how the elderly in nursing homes enjoy the opportunities for supportive interactions with relational artifacts in spite of their (presumable) awareness that they are not real. This is already common in Japan.

Uncannily, even super-rational scholars, despite their traditional impatience with how others anthropomorphize and project feelings onto their machines, now themselves develop feelings about the robots they themselves built, as if they were in a relationship with a living creature. This is BIG: Just because we have been anticipating them for centuries (at least since the 270 A.D. Golem), let us not be too casual now that they are actually here.

As we adapt to the digital world, we are still attached to people, but are increasingly interacting via the mediation of disembodied robots. Sadly, we end up treating each other shabbily as these devices also lead us to willingly chop up and squeeze the richness of our nuanced and felt human connections with each other into small, thin, narrow-bandwidth data trickles. Then we feel desperately compelled to keep this thin channel open. No, wonder — it’s hard to feel a good hug through a straw.

We are already discovering that, given free rein, even as we intend them to improve our connections with one another, and to many extents they do, using these tools often actually fragments communication and can be harmful to us. It is also often easier to anonymously mistreat each other and ourselves. Our beloved devices filter too much out, and their use is dumbing down our kids and weakening our family lives. In addition, we now seem so attached to the devices themselves that we are scaring ourselves by just how out of control we can be.

Moreover, few of us seem to care much that the talking machines we encounter daily that use the personal human “I” and call us “you”, as in the “I don’t understand your question” of Apple’s Siri and the airline reservations “clerk” (who may well be on their way to elope and become the parents-to-be of Kubrick’s 2001′s Hal — that’s a joke.)

But the joke is hardly funny because it is too close to a kind of troubling confusion or indifference about being human with unique human selves we each call “I” while at the same time machines too, that are clearly not human and have no unique selves, can also use our “I” and address us as peers as a “you”. How weird, when you really think about it. Personally, I always find it uncanny and annoyingly dishonest, as if I am forced to interact with an odd and fake stranger in some crazy pretense of a relationship, yet I accept it silently as yet another absurdity of modern life.

The Core of Being Human and Sane is the Capacity for Human Relationships and Differentiating Human from Non-Human

But I cannot accept this craziness for developing brains because it is inherently dehumanizing and dangerous. If the faking machines can fool scientists and elders and even get the rational and self-aware me to interact with them, how can they not affect young babies and toddlers?

Crib robots may introduce a terrible confusion into the very heart of becoming human, a core which must thrive and become firmly rooted in real, tangible, sane, multi-sensory, nuanced human to human interactivity. Admittedly, there are almost no scientific data on the effects of crib robots on very young children and we know too little about early neurodevelopment. (There will be folks who will discredit and dismiss this article on this basis alone. Well, I wouldn’t envy their children nor the people around them if they disregard these pages, and I do hope to convince them.)

However, what we do know about how kids develop, the infant brain is wired, and the way core elements of personality form in the early months and years should alert parents to avoid exposing infants and toddlers to such devices. If we wait for conclusive research, we will have taken unnecessary and probably irreversible risks with our young.

For example, we know that the core neural networks that form basic personality begin during infancy and are extremely sensitive to reciprocal interactions with the mothering person. The brain infrastructure for much of what makes us human develops during the first 5 years, and the earlier the faster. Carelessly inserting interactions with nonhuman intelligences into this early phase could be disruptive to normal personality development and damaging to one of Nature’s most precious gifts to us — the developing human brain. The long term effects may not manifest until much later, when the baby is grown and faces the social challenges of adulthood and parenting (Harrow).

Baby Invents a Relationship Toy and Does Not Need a Crib Robot

Let us begin giving careful thought now about what might work and what might hurt by reviewing our understanding of the brains and minds of very young children.

People have always been social creatures who have needed each other. Humans have always been plugged in — connected to one another through our senses and minds and bodies — with what resemble Cozolino’s (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships) broadband “social synapses”, hard-wired into us from birth and programmed to be refined by development. Making possible our survival as a species, these deep channels carry a wealth of highly choreographed uniquely human information among us.

Children always have and always will need good family relationships, values, education, and parents’ full love and presence to develop into human creatures with healthy brains and minds. Children are programmed to form broad-band social synapses, primarily with parents, that feed them the rich data that organizes and shapes their brains and fullest humanness. Brain development continues through the life cycle, but is mostly complete by the early 20′s.

Healthy brain maturation and psychological development through childhood, adolescence and beyond depend on how a child advances along two basic interwoven processes—separation and individuation, as child psychology pioneer Margaret Mahler (The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant) has taught us. The separation-individuation process is highly evolved in humans, and is mediated by, but also, influences the structure of the child’s evolving brain. This process is undeniably central to the development of the mind and what it means to be human, and there are as many variations on how this works as there are people.

Individuation is the process of becoming an individual with unique qualities through internalizing and reorganizing what is learned from identification, imitation, learning, and other means. To become one’s own person with a strong claim to being one’s own self, each person must also differentiate and separate from his parents.

Following the intense bonding of early infancy, it is not easy for a child to undertake this difficult process. For a child to feel secure enough to undertake separation itself and experience being a distinct individual, requires a degree of self-reliance and awareness that may not have yet formed sufficiently.

Experts have long understood that infants attempt to master the early days of this challenge by inventing a clever way to assist their transition—an attachment to a transitional object (Winnicott). This is a universal occurrence although many children do not do this, either because they are prewired differently, have other ways of coping with separation-individuation, or, more rarely, because their development has not advanced well.

Here is how the child’s brilliant invention works: The child chooses something—usually a soft and cuddly object, but it can be anything he can hold and feel. He then endows it with magical qualities especially to give a sense of safety and calm, like Mother. Now—presto—he has his own exclusive companion that protects and supports anywhere, anytime, unlike Mother, who sometimes disappears.

In addition to helping with separation, this “lovey”, is also called transitional because it is neither human nor object, but something in between. The child may bestow it with a name that shows how stable, special, and unique among all other objects in the child’s world it is. Some children as they get older invent imaginary friends in the same way. Harvey, the 1945 play, 1950 film with Jimmy Stewart, and TV show with Art Carney, is an example of this phenomenon.

Here is another example: “Lambie” or “Blankie” is the child’s constant personal companion and an important talisman providing safety in the face of the real and imagined perils of her ever-expanding world. She carries this new companion for comfort, support, safety, and soothing, vigilantly keeping track of it and counting on it to reassure and calm her when she is upset. She guards and treasures it, as she takes it everywhere. It enables her courage when facing the mysteries and dangers of the dark night. Clutching Lambie, she peacefully drifts into sweet sleep. It also fortifies daytime explorations into new unknown places.

Later, as her brain centers mature, she realizes that Lambie is not a living thing, but she still needs its magical powers and is able to set aside the reality, much as we become engrossed in a movie although we know it is make believe. The child may keep this magical invention indefinitely—through college or even later, or at least in her memory, and continue to draw a special comfort from it. I have commonly witnessed this in my practice even in nostalgic septuagenarians.

This experience is probably the child’s first major encounter with the specialness of imaginative play. The child’s abilities to partially suspend reality, form a meaningful system of perception, action, thought and feeling, and use a fantasy symbol to make herself feel safer, underlie later play, creativity, and appreciation of others’ creations, and the ability to imagine a future and plan for it.

In addition to helping the basic separation-individuation process, it provides opportunities to develop and practice other important human qualities as life goes on. It is the child’s major creation, and she fully owns it. She will repeat this many times in many forms over a lifetime, but it is most dramatic when it first appears in early childhood. It later evolves into a complex and rich part of human life.

Possible Benefits of Robots, but Not in Cribs

While the effects of crib robots on very young children need to become intensely controversial to become eventually resolved, it is easier to envision how schoolchildren, older youth and other age groups may benefit from educational interactions with them. Later on, once the child is able to tell fake from real, it can be an entirely different situation. Nevertheless, we hope that the older child can enjoy the collaborative thinking and joint exploration, learning, and teaching that only humans can provide.

Parents can start teaching the child the difference between real and fake after the age of about three. In her technology-saturated lifetime, a child is likely to encounter many simulations that will strain the distinction between fake and real, so it is crucial to start teaching this distinction as early as possible

Robots, especially used in the presence of a helpful adult, can be beneficial educational tools. However, they must never take the place of relationships with living things. For instance, a five-year-old can prepare for a new baby brother as he and Mother play with a baby doll robot that requires care and responds to affection, when a live pet is not available.

Or an older child and his family may play at caring for and training a responsive relational animal artifact in circumstances where actual animal care is not possible. Or playing with a relational doll that models interactions with medical personnel and helps teach what to expect during hospitalization, preparation, and recovery from surgery may be reassuring for a soon-to-be hospitalized child.

A depressed child could benefit from playing with an intelligent, appropriately-trained “therapy doll” who would provide supportive real-time cognitive behavioral interpretations, as long as none of these would replace human interactions; they just complement them.

Or a child challenged by an autistic spectrum disorder may initially relate better to the more mechanical aspects of a relational artifact. As the youngster adapts, the artifacts could be programmed to gradually increase their “humanness” and random behaviors. We already know that autistic kids gain substantially from mechanical objects with human facial expressions.

Moreover, like an artificial limb or a seeing-eye dog, interactive, intelligent media may become acceptable helpers to intellectually, physically, or emotionally challenged children. For example, an interactive media device that can recognize speech could translate into signs for a hearing-impaired child.

Given the therapeutic possibilities, it is still critical that the younger the child, the more a parent needs to make sure the interaction stays in the realm of play, and mediates the experience to assure intended use. Clarifying the distinctions between animate and inanimate would be the essential task for the grown up. With this caveat, applications for older children might be quite helpful when designed appropriately. Those who study, design, and program relational artifacts for older children have wonderful opportunities to create effective strategies that would be appropriate and helpful to children’s developmental needs.

Adopting major new technologies (bronze tools, printing press, cotton gin, automobile, TV, atomic fusion, etc.) does inevitably change each new user, families, society, and the very course of history. Maybe what is new today is that the rapidity of change is itself so stressful. Now we even have a front row seat in real time. So maybe we can now hope to influence the course of this IT revolution directly, when it is still young.

So What Now?

Bottom line: Wait. We need more research to determine how crib robots can be made safe for crib dwellers undergoing rapid maturation of their brains and development of their minds. The burden of proof that crib robots are safe must be placed now squarely on their promoters and on those who actually put them into kids’ hands, and ignorance is no excuse.

Experts just don’t know how experiencing crib robots might ultimately influence cognitive, social, moral, and aesthetic development. Wait until you know more about the benefits, risks and safe use of crib robots and computers with very young children. Be wary of those who endorse these objects.

Ignore or thwart those who would have your very young child embrace robots, and prudently severely limit exposure until we know more about their long-term effects. Never leave the very young child to play alone with them. For the time being, you will be better off encouraging appropriate play with gentle pets. Such interactions between living things are complex, spontaneous, non-stereotyped, and provide a back-and-forth that is authentically mutually warm and affectionate. It is what the human brain has been prewired for.

When you are a very young child, it is one thing to talk to your own invented transitional object or doll that you animate yourself, powering the moment almost entirely with your own imagination. It is quite another to have the crib robot talk back in a way preprogrammed by strangers and in a stranger’s voice and dialect, or even mother’s canned non-nuanced voice. It is one thing to make your doll move. It is quite another to have the doll move on its own.

The very act of inventing the transitional object is a major creative and imaginative act. The magical qualities a child imbues it with are directly based on the child’s own needs. But a crib robot was already invented by someone else with someone else’s magic. Moreover, it is preprogrammed with magical qualities of speech, movement, and responsiveness feigning human mutuality. How much room does that leave for the child’s own inventiveness and creativity? Even if the child gains intellectually, what kind of person will he be?

If crib robots replace transitional objects, how would their interactivity affect separation-individuation? Since this process is crucial to the development of socialized, productive, creative people, how do we know the long-term impact on individual development and ultimately on the future of human society? Could the child become less attached, less sensitive, less spiritual, less responsible, less moral, or a less compassionate person? Less creative or developed aesthetically? Less human? We can only guess at the possibilities: Would these include addictive or other unwelcome behaviors or deficits, personality disorders, or over-reliance on machine intelligence? Will healthy Socialization and Family Relationships suffer?

A cuddly stuffed animal crib robot may appear safe enough. But it may not be. It is programmed to behave like it is alive, but it is not. It is constructed to appear authentic, but it is a facsimile. It may share some qualities with living things, but it lacks life. It may appear to feel or to care, but it does not. It is not alive. It is a fake. Wouldn’t it be deceitful or crazy to pawn it off on a very young child who may not understand the difference?

When we replace human to human contact, or even human to pet interactions, with human-machine contact, are we confusing our very young child about the nature of life itself? Are we interfering with early appreciation of the preciousness of living things? Would some parents or institutions misuse these mechanical toys to baby-sit or abrogate their roles? To control and brainwash? Would your child grow up more likely to take instructions from people who are inhumane?

There are many more questions than answers about how crib robots might influence early development. We obviously know little about this crucial area. But what we don’t know, and especially what we don’t know we don’t know, can hurt us and generations of kids. Answers are beginning to come in, but crucial scientific work is slow and laborious.

It is HOW we use technology that counts. So let’s start building on Dr. Turkle’s and other scientists’ findings and manage our technology consumption more thoughtfully, especially when it comes to children. The time has come for us to stop merely reacting with fear and mistrust of technology. We need comprehensive, sensible, practical approaches based on a sound vision of where to go from here. Such a framework needs to be credible, practical, pro-social, developmentally-oriented and family-centered. Let us take charge and make sure we, not the media or the devices, give ultimate form to our social synapses, especially when it comes to our kids.

Sometimes parents need to paddle the family canoe against the stream of popular culture, which, after all, often seeks the lowest common denominator. After over a decade of Wild-West digital social experimentation and youth media consumption chaos, it is now time for parents to become empowered and educated with new tools to manage the digital lives of children.

I suggest beginning in early life to make the correct use of technology part of family life, not the other way around, if you want your babies to use it correctly when they become teens. Treat devices as appliances, like blenders. Harvest the best interactive digital resources and present them to kids as their personalized balanced Media Plan containing age-appropriate Growth Opportunities for Family Relationships, Values Education, Education Enrichment, Socialization, and Entertainment and your full presence. Plan media consumption as you do meals and hygiene.

Decide that no interactive digital device, whether embodied or disembodied, belongs in the home where you are raising budding humans unless it enhances family life and child development. Carve out tech-free times and places: keep the robots out of reach and turned off regularly in your home, borrowing from the sensible practice of reserving the Sabbath for restorative spirituality and reflection and affirmation of our anchors in faith, values, family, and community.

And please, please, do not rush yet to put embodied or disembodied crib robots into kids’ cribs or playpens.

 



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