Concerns for parents and why they could be good for kids

A new generation of toys, using artificial intelligence, could help kids learn digital skills and encourage empathy and manners, said an Edmonton researcher with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) and the University of Alberta.

“Something that is emotive and complains about mistreatment can be a educational tool,” Anna Koop, director of Applied Machine Learning at Amii, said concerning the Anki Vector robot.

“There's some interesting lines of research in using robots, especially emotive robots, to help with early socialization for children who are having trouble.”

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Vector, created by Anki, is a robot able to respond to visual, audio and touch-based stimulus. It also has facial recognition.

“It acts very excited to see me, so I would feel guilty if I had to wipe its memory,” Koop said.

“The eye animations are very emotive. They're so well done for making you feel like it's excited or scared.”

AI is not new, but according to researchers at the University of Alberta, we are on the verge of an new “industrial revolution” that will transform society.

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“We're definitely at an age where more interesting things are possible (when it comes to AI robot toys),” Koop said.

Some robots also have the ability to teach kids computer programming, such as Lego Mindstorms.

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“You can type computer code functions on how to move something. So, if you want to lift left arm, you type in a line of code and then it tells it what to do,” Tom Faulkner, operations product process manager at Best Buy, said.

“It's very basic for the development of kids interested in that tech side of things.”

There are dozens of AI toys to choose from, geared towards toddlers to adults. Commercial robots range in price up to about $400.

Koop said some concerns that have raised about AI robots for their kids include privacy and attachment.

“What if they get too attached to it?” she said. “There's a weird concern about people being too polite to robots and I think that's silly.

“I think it's fine to say ‘thank-you' to robots. I think it's great practice.”

As for privacy concerns, Koop said robots, such as Vector, connect to WiFi, have a camera and can take pictures. She said parents need to read and be aware of the terms of service when they're looking at toys that are interacting with their kids.

“There's a certain amount of trust with the company to say: ‘Yes, I trust that you're using this data only for what you say you are,'” Koop said.

She also said people need to hold companies to account if they violate their terms.

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