Homework, photo by Kate Hiscock, www.katehiscock.com

I’d like a robot.

I’d like a robot to do all my gardening. The robot of my dreams would clean out gutters and drains, paint the siding, sweep the patio, and tidy the garage. On a good day, said robot would also do all the housework. It would also be a treat if it could provide deep-tissue massages and yoga instruction, cook tasty and healthful meals, do the dishes and the shopping, and keep me organized.

Yes, I’d like a robot that is a gardener–housekeeper–chef–personal assistant. That way, I could concentrate on more satisfying, more creative activities.

It appears that the way I view technology is pretty typical for an adult. We adults usually think of technology as a tool to help us with tasks—in particular, with chores. We consider it separate from humanness.

Kids, apparently, see technology very differently. A survey of students aged 8 to 12 reveals young people expect future technology to fulfill functions much more essential to the human experience. Kids, it seems, tend to think of it as fundamentally human.

U.S.-based social/technology-research consultants Latitude Research conducted the study in collaboration with the LEGO Learning Institute and Australia’s Project Synthesis. They asked 348 youngsters from six Western countries to write stories about what their lives would be like if robots were a fixture in their learning environments—at school and beyond.

When the researchers applied a coding scheme to the stories, they found the under-13 respondents saw robots as supportive, nonjudgmental friends. The youngsters indicated they wanted their robots to provide comfort and company, encourage them to learn and grow, motivate and empower them, and, in some cases, fulfill emotional needs more reliably than humans do.

Suddenly my robot requirements seem paltry and…limited.

Yes, I can put my name down for a robot that prepares pancake breakfasts, German sausage breakfasts, sushi, shish kebab, or complete turkey dinners, or I can hanker for a truck-sized model that whips up entire Chinese dinners. I can also settle for an engineering marvel that folds tea towels perfectly. I can even finally learn to program the auto-cook setting on my 12-year-old oven.

But what are pancakes, Chinese dinners and perfectly folded tea towels next to, well, friendship?

With Pink Shirt Day coming up next Wednesday and the tragedies of Amanda Todd and targets of bullying this past year, what an indictment about our society that kids see machines of the future providing the most basic aspects of what friends, parents and family represent.

I’m not talking about the homework part, although of course good friends and family provide support with that, too. I’m talking about encouragement, acceptance, tolerance, trust, respect, comfort, approval, reassurance….

This is the kind of support that might have made a big difference—a vital difference—to Todd and other casualties of social isolation and bullying.

The goal of the Robots@School study were to determine how technology facilitates learning, play and creativity, what relationships children hope to develop with and through robots, and how robots and other technologies might ignite and encourage children’s learning and creativity. The researchers state in their report, “Robots are a useful proxy for understanding kids’ social, creative and learning aspirations in ways that might be more illuminating than if we engaged them directly on such issues. Robots allow kids to project their weak­nesses, strengths and ambitions.”

In the report, kids see robots as better versions of teachers and parents, offering limitless time and patience, encouraging confidence and self-direction, and allowing kids to make mistakes without self-consciousness. The kids believed robots’ supportiveness would lessen kids’ fear of failure and empower them to take more creative risks without fear of being ostracized.

In other words, the kind of support that B.C.-raised slam poet Shane Koyczan could have used during his grade-school Pork Chop incident. Koyczan describes the incident that led to years of being bullied in his animated poem, To This Day, published this week.

As he says in the poem, “If a kid breaks in a school and no one chooses to hear, do they make a sound?”

I’ll forgo putting in the order for the robot and go make friends with some kids instead.



Sources include:

Latitude Research’s Robots @ School

Chinese cook robot

Kebab-cooking robot

German sausage-breakfast robot

Dinner-cooking robot

Towel-folding robot



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