Why Toddlers Love Robots

Responsiveness and unpredictability are the keys to keeping children's attention

3 min read

6 November 2007—Entertainment robots have become sophisticated enough that they can charm toddlers for weeks, or even months, and could soon be useful to teachers as permanent educational assistants, according to research reported this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Qrio, the dancing, bouncing, giggling robot spawn of Sony Corp., tried out its social skills on a group of children between 10 months and 24 months old at the Early Childhood Education Center at the University of California, San Diego, as part of a study on how children socialize with robots. The researchers found that the key to Qrio’s popularity was its ability to move and respond to the children in a way that was closely timed to the activity around it.

Robot designers usually measure the social competence of their creations by observing the robots’ performance in public demonstrations. Watching how well a robot can grab and hold a person’s attention gives engineers ideas about how to change software or aesthetic design. But getting good feedback from toddlers in public demonstrations can be hard, says Seema Patel, CEO of Interbots, a company that makes the entertainment robot Quasi. ”It becomes trickier with toddlers, because often they’re being held or pushed in strollers,” and don’t have the freedom to interact, she says.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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