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Robots have power to 'significantly influence' children, study reveals

Children are far more susceptible than adults to being influenced by robots, according to a study.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth used a technique developed in the 1950s to determine how much influence robots can have on people’s opinions.

The Asch paradigm was originally used to describe how people will usually follow the opinions of others, even if they are clearly wrong.

“People often follow the opinions of others and we’ve known for a long time that it is hard to resist taking over views and opinions of people around us,” said robotics professor Tony Belpaeme, who led the study alongside Plymouth researcher Anna Vollmer.

“We know this as conformity. But as robots will soon be found in the home and the workplace, we were wondering if people would conform to robots.

"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.”

The study, published in the journal Science Robotics, showed that children scored higher on a test when alone in a room compared to a room with robots.

Professor Belpaeme said the study’s results show children have more of an affinity with robots than adults, suggesting they may be more susceptible to robot-based advertising.

This phenomenon could be used positively in society, for example social robots could be used to help diabetic children accept the nature of their condition.

Similar robots could also be used to help children learn a second language.

The researchers warned that the study also raises concerns about the negative influence robots might have on vulnerable children.

The study concluded: “A future in which autonomous social robots are used as aids for education professionals or child therapists is not distant. In these applications, the robot is in a position in which the information provided can significantly affect the individuals they interact with.”

In order to protect against any potential pitfalls, the study’s authors said a discussion is now required about whether measures should be put in place to help minimise the risk to children.


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Why Google's censored search engine for China is an ethical minefield

The Great Firewall of China is the largest-scale internet censorship operation in the world. The Chinese state says the firewall is there to promote societal harmony within an increasing population of billions of people. It considers the internet in China as part of its sovereign territory.

Eight years ago, Google withdrew from China, pulling its search and other services out because of country’s limits to freedom of speech. But it is now planning to relaunch a heavily censored version of its services in China, according to a whistleblower who spoke to online news website The Intercept.

This project, named Dragonfly, will encompass a new, heavily censored version of Google’s search services, including mobile apps, that will be run in partnership with a local company in China. Censorship in China includes returning no results for searches that depict Chinese police or military brutality (such as the Tiananmen Square massacre), pro-democracy sites, sites linked with the Dalai Lama, and anything related to Taiwanese or Tibetan independence.

The whistleblower who spoke to The Intercept cited ethical concerns over this project – and rightly so. There are several ethical dilemmas with Google’s move back into China. Should large western companies such as Google give up ethical values to make money in China? Is it okay to design technology to assist the Chinese government in restricting the human rights of their citizens? Where does “respect for Chinese values” turn into “assistance in oppressing Chinese people through censorship”? Is Google being hypocritical by making money on the freedom of information available in most societies but then selling it out when they go into China?

The largest professional organisation for computing, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), recently updated its code of ethics, which includes some specific provisions that we can use to think through these issues. Many Google employees are members of the ACM, meaning they have agreed to abide by this code. Some of these employees may be working on project Dragonfly, so they will need to evaluate their work in terms of the code. An initial analysis using the code (and this complex case requires more than space allows) offers three insights.

First, the primary goal of technology development should be to benefit the public good, “to contribute to society and to human wellbeing”, “promoting human rights and protecting each individual’s right to autonomy” (principle 1.1). Taking part in censorship at the Chinese state’s behest and censoring the topics mentioned above would appear to be inconsistent with this principle.

Individual freedom is heavily curtailed in China, and this is reflected in the censorship of the internet there. But despite what the Chinese government argues, promoting social harmony doesn’t require the restriction of freedom or violation of human rights.

Second, there are specific provisions within the code against assisting in the oppression of a population within the code. “Computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people” (principle 1.4). In developing technology to censor sites related to democracy and Chinese-committed atrocities, Google employees would arguably be violating this as well.

But surely this is a case for respecting “local, regional, national and international laws and regulations” (principle 2.3)? The code of ethics expects computing professionals to challenge unethical rules – and break them if a rule “has an inadequate moral basis or causes recognisable harm”.

It’s also one thing to respect local customs and laws, and another to actively implement them, as Google will be doing. By collaborating, Google as a large western company stands accused of giving credence to these oppressive laws, providing the Chinese state with political weight and propaganda for their policies.

Betraying its values?

It would be highly hypocritical of Google to take advantage of the values that have allowed it to grow to the behemoth it is today in much of the world – democracy, freedom of speech, personal autonomy – and then drop these when moving into the Chinese market. Instead of being a values-driven company, it seems from this move that it is purely profit-driven.

So what should Google do? One way of responsibly dealing with this would be to open up project Dragonfly to input from the rest of the company, not just the hundred or so working directly on it. Let the Google employee base and other non-shareholder stakeholders decide where the red lines for Google’s values should be.

Research has indicated that ethical companies are more profitable, retaining employees who are proud to work for the company, and earning respect and loyalty from the public. Standing up and showing China the value of democratic participation in company value identification will likely earn Google more respect both home and abroad.

Catherine Flick is a reader in computing and social responsibility at De Montfort University. This article first appeared on The Conversation (

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iPhone charger could change yet again as EU plans to make all handsets to have same plug

Apple could be forced to drop the charging port in the bottom of its iPhones as part of new plans to help users.

The company may be required to use another standard like USB-C instead, so that ports can be standardised across manufacturers.

The European Union is looking at new ways of making phone companies all use the same phone chargers, which could include forcing companies to decide on a standard and use it in all phones.

Until now, the EU has relied on commitments from those companies to work towards using the same standard. In 2009, the EU successfully pressured 14 companies including Apple and Samsung to work towards all using the same charging ports from 2011.

But those phones all still use different wires. While many companies have moved towards the USB-C standard, Apple’s iPhones still use the Lightning port that has been present in all of the recent models.

Now Reuters reports EU regulators are frustrated with the lack of progress and might look into different ways of forcing companies to adopt the same standards.

“Given the unsatisfactory progress with this voluntary approach, the Commission will shortly launch an impact assessment study to evaluate costs and benefits of different other options,” competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a response to questions from EU politicians.

It would be very unlikely indeed that Apple would ever allow anyone else to use its Lightning connector, which is proprietary and available only on Apple devices.

As such, any effort to standardise the chargers would almost certainly mean that Apple would have to move towards another open connector, such as USB-C.