Cognitive Daily

Kids love robots. I have a three-year-old friend who can identify the 1950s cult icon Robbie the Robot at 20 paces. My own son Jim could do an impressive multi-voiced impression of R2D2 by age five. Now that real robots are beginning to be everyday household items (when I was a kid, if I’d known I’d be able to buy a vacuum-cleaner robot from Sears when I was a grown-up, I’d be ashamed to learn that I never actually bought one!), one wonders how real kids will respond to them.


When, for example, might a child begin to believe that a robot has a conscious mind, and that humans might communicate with robots the same way they talk with each other? The photo above (source: IRC) depicts a child interacting with Robovie, a robot designed to make human gestures, speak natural languages, and establish eye contact, just like real people. Perhaps these interactive features are the key, but perhaps a mere humanoid shape is all that is necessary to convince a child that something is “human.”

A team led by Akiko Arita developed a test to see how 10-month-old infants reacted to the Robovie. They showed these babies a movie of a person talking with the robot. Some babies saw the robot responding and interacting in a natural human way, another group saw a human talking to an unresponsive robot, and a third group saw the robot interacting with an unresponsive human. Next, They were shown movies of a human talking to someone hidden behind a curtain. The curtain was removed and either a robot or a human was revealed.

Most research with infants is conducted in a similar manner: since babies can’t tell us what surprises or interests them, researchers show them a stimulus of some type, then measure how long they look at the stimulus. The longer the stimulus keeps their attention, the more surprising it’s surmised to be. In this case, the researchers measured how long babies looked at the newly revealed robot. Here are the results:


When babies had seen the robot interacting with the human previously, they appeared to be equally interested in a human-human conversation and a human-robot conversation later. But when the babies initially saw the human talking with an immobile robot, they looked at the hidden robot significantly longer than the hidden human. It appears that they were surprised to see another human trying to talk with it later. Perhaps more surprisingly, when the robot had tried to interact with an unresponsive human in the movie, babies again appeared to be surprised when a human tried to talk with a robot later.

So even as early as 10 months of age—well before they are able to talk themselves—it seems that infants consider interactivity to be the key factor in deciding whether a robot is something to talk to, whether it has a human mind. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that this was my son’s reaction to the scene in Star Wars when Luke and Han were awarded medals for destroying the Death Star: “Why didn’t R2D2 get a medal, too?”

Arita, A., Hiraki, K., Kanda, T., & Ishiguro, H. (2005). Can we talk to robots? Ten-month-old infants expected humanoid robots to be talked to by humans. Cognition, 95, B49-B57.


  1. #1 Chris Tregenza
    January 4, 2006

    You may be interested in something I covered on Myomancy [ ].

    Robots to Diagnose Autism

    That is probably one of the strangest headlines I’ve ever used but its true. Brian Scassellati an assistant professor at Yale University, USA is developing a robot to work with autistic children.
    Its long been observed that autistic children do not make eye contact the way that other children do. By making a humanoid robot for children to interact with, Mr Scassellati is hoping develop diagnostic tests that will work on children as young as twelve months old.

    [ ]

  2. #2 moon
    January 4, 2006


    it’s obvious – you just have to make the robots cute!

    the NY Times has an article on cuteness and how companies use the “cuteness” principle to market their products.

  3. #3 Mind Hacks
    January 6, 2006

    2006-01-06 Spike activity

    Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news: Brain Waves considers the role of ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin and the potential for a love spray. Town tries soft lighting to calm violent drinkers. In contrast to one of last year’s controversia…

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