Children are more easily influenced by robots than humans, study finds

16 Aug 2018

Image: Ulza/Shutterstock

A study comparing how adults and children respond to tasks set by robots showed the incredible power of technology over young people.

It might sound like a prologue to a dystopian novel, but new findings revealed by the University of Plymouth in the UK suggest that children are more likely to be swayed to believe or do something by a robot than a human.

The study, published to Science Robotics, compared how adults and children respond to identical tasks set by either their peers or by humanoid robots.

While adults were shown to be largely influenced by their human peers, the children involved in the study – aged between seven and nine – did not follow their lead.

Instead, these children were shown to more likely parrot what the robot said, rather than what a human said.

The experiment was based on a test developed in the 1950s called the Asch paradigm, which gets the subjects to look at four lines on a screen and say which two match in length.

Historically, the test has shown that people are more likely to agree with a wrong answer when said in a group, compared with typically getting the right answer when alone.

During this latest test, children alone in a room scored 87pc, but this dropped to 75pc when a robot participated with them. Of the wrong answers said, 74pc of them were aligned with the robot.

Power of social robots

“What our results show is that adults do not conform to what the robots are saying. But when we did the experiment with children, they did,” said Prof Tony Belpaeme of the research team.

“It shows children can perhaps have more of an affinity with robots than adults, which does pose the question: what if robots were to suggest, for example, what products to buy or what to think?”

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, as the researchers suggest autonomous social robots could make for beneficial educational aids in the future.

As part of a four-year programme, the researchers showed that social robots could help diabetic children come to terms with their condition.

The researchers said: “A future in which autonomous social robots are used as aids for education professionals or child therapists is not distant.

“In these applications, the robot is in a position in which the information provided can significantly affect the individuals they interact with.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic