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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Robot nannies and applied ethics

In the journal "Science", 24 April 2009, pp. 463-464, two letters from computer specialists take different sides on the desirability of proposed "child-minding" robots. One letter states, "Intuitively, we... suspect that nanny-bots are not good for the psychological development of children left in their care, but until empirical research demonstrates this, we must suspend judgment; such research might, in fact, find no harm at all." The other letter rejoins, " I think that waiting for empirical research to demonstrate psychological harm to children is dangerous. Suspending judgment about possible harm when many empirical studies show the lasting effects of neglect is not a good option."

A critical point about this disagreement has to do with the fact that there will be no empirical research on "nanny-bots", unless some dramatic changes in research ethics take place. Research that has the potential for harming children is not approved, much less funded, unless its dangers are balanced by the likelihood of finding information that will prevent some existing cause of harm from functioning. "Primum non nocere"-- first, do no harm-- is the principal guideline for researchers who work with infants and children. Institutional Review Boards, groups that review and approve or disapprove research plans, are equally concerned with the possibility that experimental work might cause developmental problems.

Very well, though, aren't there different approaches to research? Nanny-bots are not against the law. Suppose some parents chose to use them? Could researchers not collect data about the bot-reared children and use that information to decide whether robots fostered good development? Yes, this could be done; but no, the results of this research would not give us satisfactory answers about the effect or robot-rearing. This type of quasi-experimental research design is plagued by confounded variables-- factors that occur together in such a way that we can't figure out which of them has which effect. For example, we might guess that the average parent would not choose to use a nanny-bot. What kind of parent might make this choice? We can only speculate, but such a choice might accompany an unusual level or type of education; family income; family realtionships outside the marriage; marriage itself; involvement with the community; professional demands on the parents; health status of parents; mental health and personality; characteristics of the child that make him or her difficult or easy to care for; and many other possibilities. If a bot-reared child develops worse than other children-- or better-- we have no way to know which factor or factors caused the difference.

Interestingly, the authors of these letters were concerned that robot-rearing might be analogized to neglect, and have effects similar to neglect, but presumably a nanny-bot would be built to respond quickly to infant cues. The big problem would seem to be that the nature of those cues changes rapidly in the course of early development, so the nanny-bot would need to be re-set to different types of cues as time passed. The authors also referred to "bonding" and "attachment" as problems resulting from the children's "anthropomorphic projection", but the meaning of this concern was not clear. The most likely developmental problem for the bot-reared would probably have to do with communication and language, both of which involve complex cognitive abilities on the part of adults partnering with communicating infants.

Goodman, K.W., & Einspruch, N.G. (2009, April 24). The way forward in the world of robotics. Science, 324, 463-464.

Sharkey, N. (2009, April 24). Response. Science, 324, 464.


  1. Hi jean , my son turned 8 weeks yesterday. As everything in the internet looks like he had red flags or signs of autism . As he doesn't show much interest in faces . Actually he will look every where ruther than faces . It breaks my heart while his father trying his best to catch his gaze or even make him look at his face . He looks at my little brother sometimes and even smile but i'm not sure if he is really looking at him also my sister he give her big smiles when he put him on her knees . Actually he hates to sleep on his back on my knees and on my mom's too . Also he cryes when i put one hand under his head and look straight at his face . He seems like he is pushing me away from him also while breastfeeding sometimes he look like he is looking at something scary on the windaw with his eyebrows up and crying with getting far of me . Maybe i have to mention that he had bottle for three time cause it was hard to me to feed him that my nipples hadn't show up tell using the bump. He doesn't look at me and my hasband while we are talking to hin. He is cooing with full of joy and smiling moving his arms and legs looking at every thing else in the room but us . He can hold his head up and i feel like he try to get it away from my chest or shoulder . He likes to be held steady like when burping him rather than on knees . Also i want to mention that he doesn't seem like he is responding to noise while sleeping . I even tried to shout . I know that i'm looking so crazy concerned new mother . But honestly sometimes i feel like he is really autistic and i'm crying a lot feeling sad for him and his father who loves him so much and ask a lot about when will he be talkative and talk with me and play with me and i'm concern that he will not be able to. I think he is not having hearing problem because once when he was crying his father played drums and he just stopped with focusing and flinching eyes . He looked so cute and funny cause when his father stopped he started to cry and when he start again he did the same stopped crying and flinching his eyes. I catched some smile and he looking at me sometimes mostly in the car but also i'm not sure ! I moved my head in front of him and he doesn't seems like trucking not sure if my worries who make me see everything as a problem i just feel like he will be diagnosed with autism !! . His father family have few diagnosed with autism and the internet seems like hill to me with a lot of websites about red flags of autism. I know that there is nothing to do in his age even if he is really autistic ( hope not ) . Wait and see is also very hard . I tried to move things in front of him and he was trucking . But when i do it a lot he looks away to the closet or anything else in the room . I know that i've wrote a lot with no organized but am really worry waiting for your respond even if it will hurt or not.

    1. Dear Fatima-- I replied on the other post you commented on.