If the average two-year-old in 2016 is surrounded by smartphones and iPads, the toddlers of the future may grow up in a world where robots are equally ubiquitous. In a new project called Raising Robotic Natives, designers propose four experimental products that could start to shape how children think about artificial intelligence today, before robots become commonplace.
"We wanted to raise questions about robotic natives before they actually appear," says German interaction design Stephan Bogner, who worked on the project with designers Philipp Schmitt and Jonas Voigt. "We believe that if we can foster a discussion beforehand, society might be able to guide the development into a preferable direction."
Technology has already evolved so that some nine-year-olds spend more time staring at screens than sleeping, babies think print magazines are broken iPads, and teenagers lose sleep because of their addition to texting.
"I believe that a lot of parents would have liked to know what's coming," Bogner says of today's tech-obsessed youth. "They would have been able to prepare for that situation. Right now they can hardly keep pace with their children and technology, but ideally they’d be able to teach and guide their children."
There's probably still time to do that with robotics. You might already have a Roomba at home, but most robots are still yet to come. The designers thought the time was right to introduce a few kid-friendly robots now—and provoke questions about how humans should live with robots in general.
One design, a robotic nurse, gives a baby a bottle for 15 or 30 minutes, replacing a human caregiver; the designers want people to consider how much we want machines to replace the most intimate moments in life. Another robot is covered in a soft dragon costume, turning it into a toy. "Robotic natives [would] spend a lot of time growing up and playing with robots," says Bogner. "They might keep their first robot like some of us do with our beloved childhood plushie."
A living-room kill switch, simple enough for kids to use, short-circuits electricity so robots would stop working. The designers imagine the kill switches becoming as common as smoke detectors.
A book, My First Robot, teaches kids about the history and possible future of robotics, and is meant to raise questions about how children should be taught robotics in school.
All of the designs are available open source, (apart from the kill switch, which was, ironically, pulled due to safety concerns). Anyone in the maker community, in theory, can create the objects for their own kids. "The objects are definitely conceptual," says Bogner. "However, we can imagine people downloading and tinkering with them. They're displayed provocatively on purpose, but we believe that precursors could soon start to appear in people's homes."
Eventually, they think that robotic natives will have different attitudes about living with robots. "Currently people are still afraid of a dystopian robot future," he says. "But once we get accustomed to them and also used to the comfort they bring with them, that attitude will change quickly. We’re not saying that the horror scenarios from the movies are wrong, and at the same time, we don’t believe in utopian robotics stories. The reality will be somewhere in between."