Think cellphones are bad? Just watch what robots can do to kids

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Robots can influence children, even when they are wrong, researchers reported Wednesday.

A pair of studies show that children respond strongly to robots, especially when they are small and cute. That can be good, the team at the University of Plymouth in Britain found. But it can also be troubling, because children were more likely than adults to give an incorrect answer to a puzzle if they saw robots giving wrong answers.

“It’s a bit sinister, isn’t it? Children succumb to peer pressure from robots,” said robotics professor Tony Belpaeme, who helped lead the study team.

“We were kind of expecting to find something, mainly because we have been working with children and robots for a long time.”

The experimental setup using the Asch paradigm with children and a group of robots.Tony Belpaeme / Ghent University

The team had been doing experiments with children to see if robots could act as coaches, helping kids lose weight, study math or take better care of health conditions such as diabetes.

“Every time, we saw that children are receptive to robots,” Belpaeme told NBC News.

The team decided to re-create a well-known psychology experiment first performed in the 1950s. Called the Asch paradigm, it has shown that people will give incorrect answers if they see people around them do.

The experiment itself is simple. People are asked to make a simple visual comparison, such as deciding which two lines match out of a batch. When alone, people rarely make a mistake, Belpaeme said. In the classic experiment, human accomplices come in and deliberately give incorrect answers in front of the subject, who often gives wrong answers, too, in response to the peer pressure.