Two BBC journalists have posted an intriguing video of an informal experiment carried out in what I guess is their journalistic HQ. The film shows them acting as mum and dad to a kind of robot dinosaur called a Pleo. I’m not sure what AI wizardry makes the Pleo’s behaviour so lifelike, but it is certainly convincing. Of most interest to me, though, is the contrast the film draws between two parenting styles. The Pleo’s manufacturers claim that the robot forms a personality on the basis of its early experiences, much as a human infant is thought to do. Under a loving, indulgent parental regime, the robot seems well-adjusted and contented. Under a harsh, abusive regime, it ends up lethargic and depressed.
Plenty of interesting things emerge from this piece. Firstly, I’m struck by how good these journalists—we’re not told whether they are parents themselves—are at playing the part of good parents. Instinctively, it seems, they do exactly what good parents everywhere do. We see evidence of motherese in their conversational styles: higher-pitched voices with exaggerated intonation. The Pleo gets gentle tactile stimulation and plenty of mind-minded linguistic input, concerned with the robot’s emotional and cognitive states of mind. The ‘parents’ are keen to take the Pleo outside to expand its experiences. There is even a suggestion that these positive strokings give the Pleo the ‘confidence’ to go out and explore its environment: a hallmark of secure attachment behaviour.
In the neglectful scenario, the parents play their roles in an equally, and scarily, convincing way. They try to pass the baby on to each other, making excuses for why they can’t look after him. The poor robot baby is shunted around the office in the hope that someone will give him some time. ‘He’s a more reserved robot than in the parallel happy life,’ the caption tells us. It might seem odd to attribute such human characteristics to something that we know to be a lump of electronic circuitry, but the emotional impression is powerful.
As with so much of developmental psychology, the adults’ actions are of as much interest as the baby’s. The Pleo, of course, has been cleverly designed to press all the emotional buttons that a human baby does, with cute squeaks and ET-like eye-blinks. It reminded me of the wonderful Kismet robot created by MIT engineers:
The point about is Kismet is that it calls out certain reactions in us, just by behaving in a human-like way. One puzzle that developmental psychologists have to contend with is how parenting can possibly make any difference when the object of parental love—the newborn baby—seems to have so little to make a difference to. Here’s a creature that—very broadly speaking—cannot see clearly, process information effectively, remember past experiences, have consciousness of its own self and so on. How can it possibly be shaped by such sensitive and subtle parental behaviours? The robot work gives us a clue how. A creature that starts off as a blob of unconscious circuitry might become conscious, just because we take it as being so. If that is so, then the Pleo’s parents’ efforts might not have been wasted after all.

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