The Bad Idea Whose Time Has Not Come


I don’t often read pop magazines, but I spotted an article in The Atlantic magazine that caught my attention. Entitled My Son’s First Robot : For better or for worse, toys powered by A.I. are building emotional bonds with children, written by Alexis C. Madrigal. It was a scary article.

The writer gave Cozmos, a toy robot, to his son on his fourth birthday. It is four inches long and looks like a bob-cat (machine) with eyes. Cozmos is no ordinary toy. It is designed by computer geniuses funded by $200 million from venture capitalists. Here is the strange part. Software inside Cozmos determines the robots state: excited, scared, nervous, happy, sad, or frustrated. It has an emotion engine. The goal is to induce genuine emotions in the toy’s owner.  It has animated eyes and dynamic voice that makes it appear life-like.

Madrigal interviewed the CEO of the toy company Anki, Boris Sofman, who openly admits that the purpose of Cozmos is to foster emotional bonds with the child. Sofman said that the robot is designed to creates “a deeper and deeper emotional connection. And if you neglect him, you feel the pain of it.”

Did I read that right? Anki is making toy robots that manipulate emotions in children? That’s right. To his credit, Madrigal saw problems with this and went to interview a woman who researches the influence of computers on human beings, Sherry Turkle. She deemed this toy as “quite possibly dangerous. Kids need connections to real people in order to mature emotionally. Pretend empathy does not do the job. If relationships with smart toys crowd out those with friends and family, even partially, we might see children growing up without the equipment for empathetic connection. You can’t learn it from a machine.”

It takes an expert to tell us that?

I think about my favorite toy as a child. I liked to play with a model of Zorro and his black horse Tornado. I played many imaginary games with it. That is the only toy I can remember. Most of my childhood was spent outside playing jump rope, climbing trees, going to the beach, going sledding and ice skating. I had to learn how to interact with real kids in the neighborhood. One day a bully was punching my younger brother. I flew into a rage and pounced on top of the bully and hauled him off my brother.

I suppose Cozmos won’t give anyone a bloody nose. In my encounter with a bully, I had a life-long lesson of loyalty to my family, courage to fight for my brother, and feeling righteous indignation. All these real emotions with real people have served me well in life.

Sorry Cozmos, in my book, you are still a dumb machine who should stay in your box.

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