Dr. S Opinion: Are “Crib Robots” Good For Babies?

Originally published by ThinkerMedia: BestThinking.com on July 9, 2012


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, 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 alarmed about their potential damage to the underpinnings of the future personalities of babies and youngsters in their intended market.

We should become aware and alarmed. In our everyday lives, we have already become insidiously attached to, trust, 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 mostly 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. We have yet to see the long-term impact on our family lives, relationships, and development. Magical touchscreens will soon enchant too many infants into the childhood media consumption frenzy that will hopefully be recognized as a public health threat sooner rather than later.

So 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 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 and awake moments will become a marketplace for sophisticated, interactive media devices and intelligent toys. We must carefully consider how these may impact our children. This article is for stimulating general discussion and raising awareness and does not necessarily comprehensively treat this subject. This piece is based on “Kids, Parents & Technology: A Manual for Young Families”, see http://www.mydigitalfamily.org.

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, these tools often actually fragment 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 in Sorry Son of Siri — that’s a joke.)

But the joke is hardly funny because it is too close to a kind of troubling confusion or indifference that feels to me highly personal. It is about being human with a unique human self I call my “I”. And now machines too refer to themselves as I’s. Despite clearly not being human and having no unique selves, a machine can also use an “I”, with a nuanced human voice and address me 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, and, sadly, I am getting used to it and hardly cuss back at the machine as much.

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

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. 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 almost complete by the early 20’s, yet continues to evolve while declining.

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.

Article by Eitan ‘Dr. S®’ Schwarz, MD

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