Adolescent brains are basically Play-Doh—moldable, soft, and easily influenced by any Tom, Dick, or Harry the Robot.
New research from the University of Plymouth suggests young children are “significantly” more likely than adults to have their thoughts influenced by artificial intelligence.
Grown-ups, while easily swayed by their peers, are largely able to resist the charm of robots. Kids aged seven to nine, on the other hand, will often repeat after the cyborg—even if it is obviously wrong.
“People often follow the opinions of others and we’ve known for a long time that it is hard to resist taking overviews and opinions of people around us,” Tony Belpaeme, a professor at the University of Plymouth and Ghent University, said in a statement. “We know this as conformity. But as robots will soon be found in the home and the workplace, we were wondering if people would confirm to robots.”
The study, led by Belpaeme and former Plymouth researcher Anna Vollmer, followed the Solomon Asch conformity experiment, developed in the 1950s to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.
(I’ve always wanted to test Asch’s elevator experiment, in which in-the-know riders face the rear of the lift, and wait to see if others automatically follow suit.)
Disguised as a “vision test,” the task requires one naive subject in a room full of conspirators. Each person (or, in this case, machine) is individually asked to identify which two of four lines match in length.
When alone, people almost always provide the correct answer. When in a group, they tend to follow what everyone else says.
According to the University of Plymouth’s study, solo children scored 87 percent on the test, and 75 percent when joined by robots. Of the wrong answers, 74 percent matched those of the androids.
“What our results show is that adults do not conform to what the robots are saying. But when we did the experiment with children, they did,” Belpaeme said. “It shows children can perhaps have more of an affinity with robots than adults, which does pose the question: What if robots were to suggest, for example, what products to buy or what to think?”
Or that everyone jump off a bridge? Or elect a moron for president? Or launch World War III?
The possibilities are endless—and utterly terrifying.
Researchers at Plymouth have also explored the positive impacts of AI in health and education settings. Social robots, for instance, can help diabetic children accept the nature of their concern. And the University is helping design a bot to support preschool children learning a second language.
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