The robots have arrived but should we get cuddly with them?

Dr Kate Darling misses her old pet Yoshi. But Yoshi isn’t lost, or dead. He’s actually just across the room on a shelf.

Yoshi is – or was until he broke – a Pleo, a robotic baby dinosaur that wakes up with puppy dog eyes, roars delightedly when stroked and does a Pleo paroxysm when held upside down.

“I would show it off to my friends and they’d be like, ‘Oh, hold it up by the tail, see what it does’,” Darling, a research specialist at MIT Media Lab, says.

“That started to bother me after a while and I’d tell them to put it back down. And then I would pet it to make it stop crying. That was so odd to me because I didn’t see myself as that type of maternal person and also I knew exactly how the robot was working,” Darling says.

Darling’s intrigue over her emotional reaction to Yoshi triggered a research career that sees her in global demand as a speaker on human-robot interactions. It also raises questions about the costs of seeing robots as agents with feelings, explored in films such as Her and Ex Machina, and now HBO’s TV extravaganza WestworldShould we befriend and bond with our robots or keep them strictly as tools to our predetermined ends?

These questions aren’t merely notional; the bots are here.

In Victoria, after Bialik College in Hawthorn East purchased a humanoid NAO robot for $15,000 last year, its students were quick to assign it a gender and a new name – Rosie.

The Association of Independent Schools of South Australia is nearing the end of a three-year trial that has deployed two NAO robots, Pink and Thomas, across early childhood centres and schools in roles as diverse as helping out with programming to being a conversation starter in ethics discussions.

“The four-year-olds didn’t see the robot as a computer. They didn’t see it as an object, they saw it as another classmate,” Dr Therese Keane, a senior lecturer in education at Swinburne Institute of Technology and a co-investigator on the trial, says.

“Each child had their little framed picture on the wall and they created one more spot and put the robot’s picture there.

“They would sit around in circles and the robot would come and join their discussion and the students would look at the robot to see whether it was following too,” Keane says.

It wasn’t just these prep students; Keane saw a dramatic personification of the robot right up into secondary school. But Professor Rob Sparrow, from the Department of Philosophy at Monash University, counsels caution in how we introduce children to robotic technology.

“I do think they have dangers. In general, it’s bad for us to have false beliefs. Treating machines as though they have feelings is encouraging us to live in ignorance,” Sparrow says.

Read the full feature in the Age newspaper here