The iPal robot from Avatar Mind can sing, dance, talk, play rock paper scissors and reportedly entertain children for hours at a time. It can also provide a remote video link for absent parents via a touchscreen in its chest. According to Jiping Wang, Avatar Mind's founder, it is an ideal companion to keep children aged three to eight occupied for “a couple of hours” without adult supervision and perfect for the time when children arrive home from school a few hours before their parents get off work. The iPal is already in production in China, where consumers will be able to buy it by the end of the year, and there are plans to sell it in the US next year.
While automated childminders sound like a godsend for busy parents, there are serious concerns about the ethics and long-term effects of 'robotic nannies'.
Professor Noel Sharkey, an expert in this area, recently said, “Robots are a great educational tool for children. It inspires them to learn about science and engineering. But there are significant dangers in having robots mind our children. They do not have the sensitivity or understanding needed for childcare.” In his opinion, the overreliance on robots to look after children could lead to “a number of severe attachment disorders that could reap havoc in our society.”
Is the iPal merely an improvement over an iPad for keeping children entertained, or the beginning of a slippery slope?