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Children’s Trust in Robots: Age-Dependent Preferences

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Anna-Elisabeth Baumann (left) with Elizabeth Goldman and Nao and Cozmo Source: Concordia University

A recent study published in the Journal of Cognition and Development explored how the age of preschoolers affected their trust in robots as sources of information. The research was conducted by a team from Concordia University and discovered that while three-year-olds exhibited no preference, five-year-olds were more likely to trust robots as competent teachers.

Experiment Setup and Results

The study divided preschoolers into two groups, consisting of three-year-olds and five-year-olds. Participants attended Zoom meetings featuring a video of a young woman and a humanoid robot, Nao, sitting beside each other with various familiar objects between them. The robot correctly labeled the objects, while the human intentionally provided incorrect labels.

Later, the children were presented with unfamiliar items and both the robot and the human used nonsense terms to label these objects. When asked what the object was called, three-year-olds showed no preference for the robot's or human's label. However, five-year-olds were more likely to endorse the term provided by the robot.

Lead author Anna-Elisabeth Baumann, a PhD candidate, stated, “We can see that by age five, children are choosing to learn from a competent teacher over someone who is more familiar to them — even if the competent teacher is a robot.”

The research team also included Horizon Postdoctoral Fellow Elizabeth Goldman, undergraduate research assistant Alexandra Meltzer, and Professor Diane Poulin-Dubois from the Department of Psychology at Concordia University.

Truck-Shaped Robot and Naive Biology Task

The experiment was repeated with new groups of three- and five-year-olds, this time using a small truck-shaped robot called Cozmo. The results were similar to those with the humanoid Nao, indicating that the robot's appearance did not affect children's selective trust strategies.

The researchers also administered a naive biology task, asking children to identify whether biological organs or mechanical gears made up the internal parts of unfamiliar animals and robots. While three-year-olds appeared unsure, five-year-olds more accurately identified that only mechanical parts belonged inside the robots.

Baumann explains, “This data tells us that the children will choose to learn from a robot even though they know it is not like them. They know that the robot is mechanical.”

Implications for Education and Learning

The researchers note that while much literature exists on the benefits of using robots as teaching aids for children, most studies focus on one robot informant or two robots in competition. Their study, on the other hand, compared both human and robot sources to determine if children prioritize social affiliation and similarity over competency when choosing whom to trust and learn from.

Poulin-Dubois highlights that their research builds on a previous paper, showing that by age five, children treat robots in a similar way to adults. She says, “Older preschoolers know that robots have mechanical insides, but they still anthropomorphize them. Like adults, these children attribute certain human-like qualities to robots, such as the ability to talk, think and feel.”

Elizabeth Goldman emphasizes that robots should be considered as tools to study how children learn from both human and non-human agents. She concludes, “As technology use increases, and as children interact with technological devices more, it is important for us to understand how technology can be a tool to help facilitate their learning.”

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.