Will Robot Bullying Trigger the Robot Uprising?

A new study finds that children lacked empathy for a humanoid robot inside a shopping mall. The children admitted the robots human-likeness, yet they continued to kick, punch and beat the android.

We’ve had it wrong all along. As robots continue to make more inroads into society, all the talk is about how to protect humans from robots. Robots steal our jobs. Robots are going to kill us. One day we’ll all bow down to the robot overlords.

But what about humans hurting robots? Apparently it’s a problem, especially among children.

Japanese researchers set up a humanoid robot inside a shopping mall for two weeks to see how children would react, documenting their findings in a paper called “Why Do Kids Abuse Robots.” And the findings are troubling.

“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.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the abuse that took place:

  • Obstructing the robots path despite it asking the children to stop
  • Covering up the robots eyes with their hands
  • Beating the robot’s head

The researchers interviewed 23 of the robot bullies afterwards, and here’s the troubling part: 87% of them viewed the robot as a human-like creature. Yet they still abused it.

The reasons for the abuse include “curiosity,” “enjoyment,” and copy-cats who did it because they saw others do it. The researchers came to the conclusion that “these children lacked empathy for the robot.” They had no regard for the robot or its feelings.

This test was designed to help the researchers figure out how to design robots that kids don’t want to hurt. Afterall, robots will play a larger role in homes and in education, so we can’t have kids destroying these creations.

All of this leads to an important question, which was asked at the end of the paper: “whether the increase of human-likeness in a robot simply leads to the increase of children’s empathy for it, or favors its abuse from children with a lack of empathy for it.”

Children abusing the humanoid robot

Now, if you look at the picture of the robot in the paper (also included above), I think we’ll agree the robot doesn’t exactly look like a human. But the kids thought it did, and certainly robots are being developed to walk, talk and look more like humans. If robots continue to get smarter through AI advances, they’ll certainly get fed up with the abuse and want it to stop, no?

It’s a small sampling, yes, and the researchers admit they need more data to determine why the kids acted in such abusive ways. Maybe this is their way to fight the robot uprising (do any of those kids belong to Elon Musk?).  Or maybe they were just kids being kids. We’ll let you decide by taking our poll below.


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