Robo-babysitter? Device can play, talk & monitor children (VIDEO)

© John Ostrem
A child-sized robot, designed to be a companion or short-term minder for children, is being tested in China but concerns have already been raised over the social impact of such "relations".

The 3ft tall iPal has moving arms, working fingers and a touchscreen tablet on its chest. It can sing, dance, and even play rock-paper-scissors. It’s available in two colors - yes, you guessed it, pink and blue.

The robot is powered by 19 sensors and 25 motion controllers across eight circuit boards. This enables it to "talk" to children and provide a video link for parents to monitor their child.

iPal is not a cold, unfeeling machine, but a great companion for your child,” AvatarMind, the Chinese company which developed the robot say. “iPal's emotion management system senses and responds to happiness, depression and loneliness. iPal is happy when your child is happy, and encourages your child when he is sad.”

However,concerns have been raised about the consequences of children being raised by or with robots. Noel Sharkey, a Professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield said, “This is awful,” when The Guardiantold him about the iPal.

Sharkey warned that relying on robots to mind children could have negative effects on their social development patterns: “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.”

The company’s founder, Jiping Wang, claims that it can keep young children occupied without adult supervision for “a couple of hours”.

The device was originally aimed at one-child families in China, and Wang says it’s perfect for children who are home alone after school before their parents arrive home from work.

It has been tested in China, much to the joy of the child participants, Wang claimed. “80 percent love it, 15 percent have no reaction, 5 percent are scared,” he said. However, it runs on wheels so stairs are a bit of a challenge.

The iPal, expected to retail at around US$1,200, is already in production in China and will be available to consumers by the end of the year, Wang said. He hopes to start selling in the United States in 2017.

The over-reliance on robots to look after children will lead to “a number of severe attachment disorders that could reap havoc in our society,” Sharkey cautioned.