Would you leave your small child in the care of a robot for several hours a day? It may sound laughable at first, but think carefully.
"Given the huge amounts of money we pay for childcare, a [robot caregiver] is a very attractive proposition."
Robots that can care for children would be a godsend to many parents, especially the financially strapped. In the U.S., 62 percent of women who gave birth in 2016 worked outside the home, and day care costs are often exorbitant. In California, for instance, the annual cost for day care for a single child averages over $22,000. The price is lower in some states, but it still accounts for a hefty chunk of the typical family's budget.
"We're talking about the Holy Grail of parenting," says Zoltan Istvan, a technology consultant and futurist. "Imagine a robot that could assume 70 percent to 80 percent of the caregiver's role for your child. Given the huge amounts of money we pay for childcare, that's a very attractive proposition."
Both China and Japan are on the leading edge of employing specially designed social robots for the care of children. Due to long work schedules, shifting demographics and China's long-term (but now defunct) one-child policy, both countries have a severe shortage of family caregivers. Enter the iPal, a child-sized humanoid robot with a round head, expressive face and articulated fingers, which can keep children engaged and entertained for hours on end. According to its manufacturer, AvatarMind Robot Technology, iPal is already selling like hotcakes in Asia and is expected to be available in the U.S. within the next year. The standard version of iPal sells for $2,499, and it's not the only robot claimed to be suitable for childcare. Other robots being fine-tuned are Softbank's humanoid models Pepper and NAO, which are also considered to be child-friendly social robots.
iPal talks, dances, plays games, reads stories and plugs into social media and the internet. According to AvatarMind, over time iPal learns your child's likes and dislikes, and can independently learn more about subjects your child is interested in to boost learning. In addition, it will wake your child up in the morning and tell him when it's time to get dressed, brush his teeth or wash his hands. If your child is a diabetic, it will remind her when it's time to check her blood sugar. But iPal isn't just a fancy appliance that mechanically performs these functions; it does so with "personality."
iPal robot interacting with a boy.
The robot has an "emotion management system" that detects your child's emotions and mirrors them (unless your child is sad, and then it tries to cheer him up). But it's not exactly like iPal has the kind of emotion chip long sought by Star Trek's android Data. What it does is emotional simulation--what some would call emotional dishonesty--considering that it doesn't actually feel anything. But research has shown that the lack of authenticity doesn't really matter when it comes to the human response to feigned emotion.
Children, and even adults, tend to respond to "emotional" robots as though they're alive and sentient even when we've seen all the wires and circuit boards that underlie their wizardry. In fact, we're hardwired to respond to them as though they are human beings in a real relationship with us.
The question is whether the relationships we develop with robots causes social maladaptation, especially among the most vulnerable among us—young children just learning how to connect and interact with others. Could a robot in fact come close to providing the authentic back-and-forth that helps children develop empathy, reciprocity, and self-esteem? Also, could steady engagement with a robot nanny diminish precious time needed for real family bonding?
It depends on whom you ask.
Because iPal is voice-activated, it frees children to learn by interacting in a way that's more natural than interacting with traditional toys, says Dr. Daniel Xiong, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at AvatarMind. "iPal is like a "real" family member with you whenever you need it," he says.
Xiong doesn't put a time limit on how long a child should interact with iPal on a daily basis. He sees the relationship between the child and the robot as healthy, though he admits that the technology needs to advance substantially before iPal could take the place of a human babysitter.
It's no coincidence that many toymakers and manufacturers are designing cute robots that look and behave like real children or animals, says Sherry Turkle, a Professor of Social Studies and Science at MIT. "When they make eye contact and gesture toward us, they predispose us to view them as thinking and caring," she has written in The Washington Post. "They are designed to be cute, to provide a nurturing response" from the child. "And when it comes to sociable AI, nurturance is the killer app: We nurture what we love, and we love what we nurture."
What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we're willing to outsource their care to a robot?
The problem is that we get lulled into thinking that we're in an actual relationship, when a robot can't possibly love us back. If adults have these vulnerabilities, what might such lopsided relationships do to the emotional development of a small child? Turkle notes that while we tend to ascribe a mind and emotions to a socially interactive robot, "Simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is never feeling, and simulated love is never love."
Still, is active, playful engagement with a robot for a few hours a day any more harmful than several hours in front of a TV or with an iPad? Some, like Xiong, regard interacting with a robot as better than mere passive entertainment. iPal's manufacturers say that their robot can't replace parents or teachers and is best used by three- to eight-year-olds after school, while they wait for their parents to get off of work. But as robots become ever more sophisticated, they're expected to become more and more captivating, and to perform more of the tasks of day-to-day care.
Some studies, performed by Turkle and fellow MIT colleague Cynthia Breazeal, have revealed a darker side to child-robot interaction. Turkle has reported extensively on these studies in The Washington Post and in her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Most children love robots, but some act out their inner bully on the hapless machines, hitting and kicking them and otherwise trying to hurt them. The trouble is that the robot can't fight back, teaching children that they can bully and abuse without consequences. Such harmful behavior could carry over into the child's human relationships.
And it turns out that communicative machines don't actually teach kids good communication skills. It's well known that parent-child communication in the first three years of life sets the stage for a child's intellectual and academic success. Verbal back-and-forth with parents and caregivers is like food for a child's growing brain. One article published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that babies who played with electronic toys—like the popular robot dog AIBO—show a decrease in both the quantity and quality of their language skills.
Anna V. Sosa of the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University studied 26 ten- to 16-month-old infants to compare the growth of their language skills after they played with three types of toys: Electronic toys like a baby laptop and talking farm; traditional toys like wooden puzzles and building blocks; and books read aloud by their parents.
The play that produced the most growth in verbal ability was having books read to them, followed by play with traditional toys. Language gains after playing with electronic toys came dead last. This form of play involved the least use of adult words, the least conversational turn-taking with parents, and the least verbalizations from the children. While the study sample was small, it's not hard to extrapolate that no electronic toy or even more abled robot could supply the intimate responsiveness of a parent reading stories to a child, explaining new words, answering the child's questions, and modeling the kind of back-and-forth interaction that promotes empathy and reciprocity in human relationships.
Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools, but they can't make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued.
Research suggests that the main problem of leaving children in the care of robots on a regular basis is the risk of their stunted, unhealthy emotional development. In Alone Together, Turkle asks: What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we're willing to outsource their care to a robot? A child might be superficially entertained by the robot while her self-esteem is systematically undermined.
Two of the most vocal critics of robot nannies are researchers at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., Noel and Amanda Sharkey. In an article published in the journal Interaction Studies, they claim that the overuse of childcare robots could have serious consequences for the psychological and emotional wellbeing of children.
They acknowledge that limited use of robots can have positive effects like keeping a child safe from physical harm, allowing remote monitoring and supervision by parents, keeping a child entertained, and stimulating an interest in science and engineering. But the Sharkeys see the overuse of robots as a source of emotional alienation between parents and children. Just regularly plopping a child down with a robot for hours of interaction could be a form of neglect that panders to busy parents at the cost of a child's emotional development.
Robots, the Sharkeys argue, prey upon a child's natural tendency to anthropomorphize, which sucks them into a pseudo-relationship with a machine that can never return their affection. This can be seen as a form of emotional exploitation—a machine that promises connection but can never truly deliver. Furthermore, as robots develop more intimate skills such as bathing, feeding and changing diapers, children will lose out on some of the most fundamental and precious bonding activities with their parents.
Critics say that children's natural ability to bond is prime territory for exploitation by toy and robot manufacturers, who ultimately have a commercial agenda. The Sharkeys noted one study in which a state-of-the-art robot was employed in a daycare center. The ten- to 20-month-old children bonded more deeply with the robot than with a teddy bear. It's not hard to see that starting the robot-bonding process early in life is good for robot business, as babies and toddlers graduate to increasingly sophisticated machines.
"It is possible that exclusive or near exclusive care of a child by a robot could result in cognitive and linguistic impairments," say the Sharkeys. They cite the danger of a child developing what is called in psychology a pathological attachment disorder. Attachment disorders occur when parents are unpredictable or neglectful in their emotional responsiveness. The resulting shaky bond interferes with a child's ability to feel trust, pleasure, safety, and comfort in the presence of the parent. Unhealthy patterns of attachment include "insecure attachment," a form of anxiety that arises when a child cannot trust his caregiver with meeting his emotional needs. Children with attachment disorders may anxiously avoid attachments and may not be able to experience empathy, the cornerstone of relationships. Such patterns can follow a child throughout life and infect every other relationship they have.
An example of the inadequacy of robot nannies rests on the pre-programmed emotional responses they have in their repertoires. They're designed to detect and mirror a child's emotions and do things like play a child's favorite song when he's crying or in distress. But such a response could be the height of insensitivity. It discounts and belittles what may be a child's authentic response to an upsetting turn of events, like a scraped knee from a fall. A robot playing a catchy jingle is a far cry from having Mom clean and dress the wound, and perhaps more importantly, kiss it and make it better.
Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools. But they can't make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued. That's the job of parents, and when parents abdicate this responsibility, it's not only the child that misses out on one of life's most profound experiences.
So consider buying a robot to entertain and educate your little one—just make sure you're close by for the true bonding opportunities that arrive so fast and last so fleetingly in the life of a child.
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.