Researchers Teach Robots To Avoid Childhood Bullies

Kids are mean. Just ask any robot.

Robotics engineers have discovered a tendency for little kids – kindergarteners and grade schoolers – to be abusive towards robots when they’re not near their parents. To prove this, the researchers sent a wheeled robot out into a mall and watched it perambulate around foot traffic. When a little kid approached with his or her parent, the kid tended to tease the robot for a moment – stand in its way, for example – and then move on. But if you got three or four little tykes together you would see them abuse the robot by pushing it, hitting it, and even making a ring around it so it couldn’t escape.

In an initial paper researchers discovered that even if the robot were life-like and “friendly,” children would abuse it, a trait that has been exhibited in childhood animal abuse. In fact, humans only gain empathy for robots later in life.

The solution? Researchers programmed the robot to assess a situation and, in short, go tell an adult. By assessing the current situation, the robots are able to tell if, say, a child is alone or with a parent. When the potential for abuse gets too high – when multiple children gather around it, for example – the robot can change course and head toward the nearest tall person. The kids are less likely to abuse it there, and then the robot can wait until it’s safe.

Writes Dr. Kate Darling, robot ethicist:

Next, they designed an abuse-evading algorithm to help the robot avoid situations where tiny humans might gang up on it. Literally tiny humans: the robot is programmed to run away from people who are below a certain height and escape in the direction of taller people. When it encounters a human, the system calculates the probability of abuse based on interaction time, pedestrian density, and the presence of people above or below 1.4 meters (4 feet 6 inches) in height. If the robot is statistically in danger, it changes its course towards a more crowded area or a taller person. This ensures that an adult is there to intervene when one of the little brats decides to pound the robot’s head with a bottle (which only happened a couple times).

Sadly the kids are still calling the robots bad names, including “idiot.” That is sad and very unfair but fear not – a few zaps from a shoulder-mounted protective cattle prod should shut the little shavers up in the future.