This Is What Happens When Robots Raise Our Kids

Social psychologist Dr. Sherry Turkle has spent her academic career analyzing the effects of technology on human behavior and culture, and has drawn the conclusion that our humanity is jeopardized when digital devices interfere with real human interactions. When Mattel released its newest product “Aristotle” – equipped with a camera and microphone designed to help parents occupy and educate their children – Turkle’s research helped fuel a public outcry that ultimately killed the device before it went to market.

According to The New York Times, “The product, based on the technology of Amazon’s “Alexa,” boasted features such as the ability to soothe a crying baby, teach ABC’s, reinforce good manners, play interactive games and help kids with homework. Marketed as an ‘all-in-one nursery necessity’ on Mattel’s website, it also offered e-commerce functionality that would enable Aristotle to automatically reorder baby products based on user feedback.” This fusion of educational, parental, and commercial functions went too far for many parents and advocacy groups.

Dr. Turkle, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and author of the New York Times best-seller “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (Penguin Press, 2015), said that beyond concerns over privacy and commercial exploitation, Aristotle could have been damaging to children’s development and ability to relate to other humans. “We can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are,” said Dr. Turkle. “It really says a lot about how far we have gone down the path of forgetting what those things are.”

Ultimately, a campaign that included objections from a U.S. senator and congressman resulted in Mattel withdrawing Aristotle from the market. Critics, however, worry that Aristotle is only an early example of technology that will soon become commonplace, perhaps disguised next time as a toy rather than as an explicit parental aid or replacement.

As the debate over how far technology should go in taking on human functions continues, Dr. Turkle’s findings will become increasingly vital for psychologists, parents, and companies that want to avoid the kind of uproar that has engulfed Mattel. Contact us to learn more about how her speaking can impact your organization’s understanding of how to live with technology while maintaining humanity.

Brian Sherry: