Toddlers will play with and yes, embrace, robotic playmates, according to researchers from the University of California at San Diego. I have to apologize for two things before proceeding. First, I think this is really last year's story; as far as I can tell, the research paper was presented in 2006. Second, I've always thought that I was above using the "_______ welcome our ______ robotic overlords" construction. Sigh.
It's still a good story, though, and I don't have it on my site.
(QRIO and the toddlers get along)
J. Movellan and F. Tanaka observed the interactions between a classroom full of toddlers aged 18 months to two years. The QRIO robot stayed in the middle of the room using its sensors to avoid bumping into kids or objects. Its initial programming was to giggle when children touched its head; it could also sit down and then lie down when its power was out.
Over a period of months, toddlers seemed to interact with QRIO in much the same way that they did with each other. Researchers measured this by looking at how often they touched QRIO; mostly, they touched the robot on the arms and hands, rather than the face and legs.
Over months, the children appeared to care for QRIO in the same way that they did for each other. When QRIO fell down, the children helped it up. When it ran out of power, they covered it with a blanket, as if it was sleeping, saying "night, night."
"The study shows that current technology is very close to being able to produce robots able to bond with toddlers, at least over long periods of time."
An interesting side result of the study came about when researchers made more use of QRIO's capabilities. The original QRIO is capable of complex movements, as shown in the video below.
(QRIO struts its stuff - seriously!)
However, when researchers allowed QRIO to carry out more complicated movements, like dancing all the time on its own, the children lost interest quickly. When researchers let QRIO go back to its simpler behavior, children played with it as a peer again.
Science fiction writers like Brian Aldiss have long thought about how children (and adults) would consider robotic playmates. In his 1969 story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, an adult interacts with a robotic playmate.
"Come down here, Teddy!"
She stood impassively, watching the little furry figure as it climbed down from step to step on its stubby limbs. When it reached the bottom, she picked it up and carried it into the living room. It lay unmoving in her arms, staring up at her. She could feel just the slightest vibration from its motor.
Interestingly, the researchers noted that it was possible that robots could be useful as "teacher's assistant," a role similar to that played by Teddy, who answered questions about its owner's behavior.
Also, as I noted above, the QRIO robot was discontinued when Sony shut down its unprofitable robot division. However, there are rumors that Toyota might buy it and do something with it.