Roblog: Robots are for Kids Too

Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction comes true and an impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Thursday for a new blog of robot rants.

Furby, for a product first released in 1998, is still an impressive piece of technology. While it may have creepy bug eyes and make unsettling mechanical sounds as it moves, the owl robot packs some impressive characteristics. Furby is programmed to go through lifelike stages of growth. It starts out babbling nonsense. Eventually, however, it starts to “learn” English phrases. The more love and positive reinforcement you give Furby, the more he utters these new phrases. They also respond to speech commands, both from people and other robots. By sensing other robots with a sensor between their eyes, several Furbies together can chat and dance. Furby captivated children from the beginning by mimicking the basic characteristics of something living, like a baby or a puppy.

Furby walks a fine line between cute and spooky. | Photo courtesy Flickr via user danbri.
Furby walks a fine line between cute and spooky. | Photo courtesy of user danbri via Flickr.

Toy robots now have the potential to do a lot more than make children laugh (and annoy parents). Improvements in other fields of robotics can lead to more entertaining, more impressive and even more useful toys. Mechanical engineering has improved to allow more realistic movements with less creaking sounds. Speech technology, as seen in voice recognition programs like Siri, Google Now and automatic translation programs, is at the cutting edge of innovation. Some toys are working to combine all these abilities into awesome new toys.

One interesting new toy is currently in development by some of the smartest minds in the industry. ToyTalk, a San Francisco based startup, is made up of former Pixar and SRI (the company that made Siri) employees who are combining their experience to make new, interactive toys. Their mission, “to create entertainment powered by characters and conversation,” represents this merge perfectly. While ToyTalk hasn’t yet released any toys to market, we can expect impressive products in the near future. Combining lovable characters with artificial intelligence capabilities, the toys will be able to interact with children in lifelike ways.

Marshall Kirkpatrick, on the technology blog readwrite, explained just why ToyTalk is worth watching:

Got that? We’re talking about children’s toys built by an AI scientist from where Siri was born, that tracks human movement, can interact with spoken words, is connected to the web and mobile by an engineer with a world-beating scalability background, promoted by an early advocate of blog publishing software that changed the world and designed by people behind the most popular children’s movies in history.

Kirkpatrick, however, also admits that this powerful technology could be a little scary. Will compelling, lifelike toys “desensitize” children to interaction with other people? Will it cause a generation to be hopelessly addicted to screens? While these fears are real, well-designed robot toys could improve the lives of children, rather than hinder them.

Interactive toys with speech capabilities could be used for important educational purposes as well as entertainment. Robots could act like tutors for children, helping them learn outside the classroom. They could even teach children extra skills, like learning a second language or how to play an instrument. Interactive robots could also encourage active use of technology, rather than passive absorption. Instead of sitting and watching television, young children could practice their speech and learn new skills at the same time.

There is no denying that technology is taking up more and more time in our lives. Robots are being used not just in factories and warehouses, but also for domestic purposes. It is important for children to learn how to interact with technology in productive, meaningful ways. By encouraging active involvement with intelligent robots from an early age, technology doesn’t have to be a stain on this generation; it can actually improve it.

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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