If you’re a fan of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, this will hit you in all the right places…
In many instances, the researchers observed children persistently obstructing the robot. Sometimes a child would step aside when asked by the robot, but then would quickly come back in front of it. Other children started ignoring the robot’s requests and just stood in front of it. In at least one situation (above), a child started to verbally express her intention to block the robot (“No-no”), when requested to move. Other children joined her in obstructing the robot and saying it couldn’t go through.
According to the study, “Escaping from Children’s Abuse of Social Robots,” obstruction like this wasn’t nearly the worst of it. The tots’ behavior often escalated, and sometimes they’d get violent, hitting and kicking Robovie (below). They also engaged in verbal abuse, calling the robot “bad words.” (The researchers did not disclose what bad words may have been used, but they mention that one kid called the robot “idiot” eight times.)
The researchers say they observed the children “acting violently” toward the robot in several occasions: Bending the neck, hitting with plastic bottle, hitting with ball, throwing a plastic bottle.
The Japanese group didn’t just document the bullying behavior, though; they wanted to find clever ways of helping the robot avoid the abusive situations. They started by developing a computer simulation and statistical model of the children’s abuse towards the robot, showing that it happens primarily when the kids are in groups and no adults are nearby.
Next, they designed an abuse-evading algorithm to help the robot avoid situations where tiny humans might gang up on it. Literally tiny humans: the robot is programmed to run away from people who are below a certain height and escape in the direction of taller people. When it encounters a human, the system calculates the probability of abuse based on interaction time, pedestrian density, and the presence of people above or below 1.4 meters (4 feet 6 inches) in height. If the robot is statistically in danger, it changes its course towards a more crowded area or a taller person. This ensures that an adult is there to intervene when one of the little brats decides to pound the robot’s head with a bottle (which only happened a couple times).