Children’s Understanding of (Technological) Minds

Henry Wellman

(Northwestern University)

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Date: January 31, 2017


Early in life children acquire well-grounded understandings of people in terms of their mental states—a theory of mind. Later children come to think about and wrestle with extraordinary minds and mental phenomena—God, omniscience, afterlife, prayer. Recently, however, the minds children encounter has expanded to include smart technology—laptops, tablets, machines—and the minds those exhibit—Siri, Alexa, Echo, and social robots. An increasing amount of research addresses how adults approach, understand and feel about these devices. Much less  is known about children and the development of their beliefs and reactions.   After some background, I will focus on our own emerging research on children’s thoughts about and interactions with social robots. Social robots—those that look human-like to varying degrees—are a revealing example because they share similarities in configuration and behavior with humans but are mechanical, smart-technological devices. Every year more and more social robots are designed to befriend, teach, and care for children. They are found in malls, homes, hospitals and schools. A focus on social robots allows me to consider questions such as: To what extent do children think of these robots as having human-like minds? To what extent do the differences between robots and people prevail? What influences whether children feel positively and negatively about and accept or resist information from and learn from such minds? And, crucially I will argue, how do answers to these questions vary with children’s age and development?

Created: Wednesday, January 31st, 2018