Adults worry about kids for lots of reasons, but one of the biggest is their susceptibility to suggestion. Every bad idea can sound like a good one to a child’s ears, from eating too much candy to eating laundry detergent.
Normally, social pressure is exerted by their peer group. But a new study suggests that we might want to start worrying about kids being unduly influenced by packs of delinquent robots.
A report published in Science Robotics and arranged by psychologist Anna-Lisa Vollmer of Bielefeld University in Germany looked at a group of 60 British adults aged 18 to 69 and 43 children aged 7 to 9 to gather data on the difference in social conformity between humans and robots. Each group was asked to evaluate an image of straight lines drawn in various lengths, with a small assembly of humans or robots nearby—a.k.a. the peer pressure group—sometimes suggesting that two of the lines were the same length. While adults often agreed with their human counterparts making the erroneous statement, they didn’t agree with the robots. So far, so good.
Kids, however, were another story. Sitting next to three diminutive robots with eyes and moving appendages to lend them a semblance of humanity, the participating children agreed with the machines when they began to insist the two lines on the screen were the same length. They adopted that suggestion 75 percent of the time.
What’s unknown is whether specific visual cues—a moving hand, a tilted head—may have led to success for the robots, or whether the children consider them to be a kind of authority figure and automatically defer to their guidance. Kids in the 7–9 age group can also be sensitive to peer pressure, so it’s possible other children would have had a similar influence.
The study was conducted as more and more “social” robots—aiding people in airports or used as teaching aids—are making their way into mainstream society. Understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on human behavior will continue to be a topic of considerable interest to researchers.