Study: "Why do children abuse robots?"

It seems that WALL-E did not succeed in brainwashing children into thinking robots are wonderful. Upon meeting a humanoid robot in a shopping mall, some children immediately decided to abuse it, according to researchers from Japan. They seemed to have no concern about hurting the robot (or its feelings).

The researchers stationed a white robot in a shopping mall in Japan for about two weeks and watched what happened when children happened upon it. Children's big eyes and lispy speaking style can fool people into thinking they are cute, sweet, gentle creatures, but in fact, those adorable faces often disguise malevolent spirits intent on destruction, spilling of adults' beverages, terrorizing animals and consuming all available sugar in the immediate vicinity. It turns out, when it comes to childrens' war path, robots are not to be spared.

"We observed serious abusive behaviors with physical contact such as kicking, punching, beating, folding arms, and moving (bending) the joints of robot’s arm and head," wrote the researchers in their paper "Why Do Kids Abuse Robots?." "Some children frequently obstructed the robot’s path regardless of the robot’s utterance requesting for the children to stop the obstruction, covered up the robot’s eyes with their hands, and beat the robot’s head."

From the researchers' paper

The researchers interviewed 23 of the robot-abusing children, all under the age of ten, to find out why they waled on the mechanical creature. Most of the abusers were boys; only three girls attacked it. Kids over ten didn't display an interest in robot abuse. Most of the children who did go mano a mano with the robot perceived it as a human-like being while 13% saw it as a machine. Half of the devil-children said they perceived that the robot seemed pained and stressed out by what they were doing to it. But they were unbothered by this, because children are evil.

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Five¬†of the kids said they abused the robot because they were curious about how it would respond to being terrorized. Eight children said they'd enjoyed tormenting it. Four said they did it because they saw other kids doing it. (If all of your friends were throwing robots off the bridge, would you do it too?) Only one kid fessed up to wanting to threaten the robot ‚ÄĒ¬†and make it fear tiny human beings for the rest of its life.

Adult humans, on the other hand, have a weird tendency to feel bad for robots in abusive relationships¬†‚ÄĒ even when they are being abused for research purposes.

The researchers are trying to figure out how to design robots that little kids won't want to try to hurt, given the interest in using robots to teach kids and a desire to keep children from destroying the robots their parents might one day bring into the home to do work for them. Their sad discovery here: "Although one might consider that human-likeness might help moderating the abuse, human-likeness is probably not that powerful way to moderate robot abuse."

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Even when kids thought the robot seemed human-like, they still abused it. The research team is going to explore ways "to elicit children’s empathy for robots." So we may find out whether a robot saying, "Ouch! You're hurting me," makes children feel badly or just eggs them on to greater abuse.

It's also possible kids are just smarter than us, and instinctively know they shouldn't welcome the robot overlords.