Miko 2 and robots like it want to be friends

Mala Bhargava | Updated on January 27, 2020

It was almost ten years ago when Sherry Turkle warned that the world was headed for a place where humans would be interacting socially with machines, like robots.

Turkle is a MIT professor and social scientist who has been working on human-technology interaction and what it will mean for the human race. She is the author of several books including Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation which explore the impact of technology on some of the aspects that actually make humans humans.

Over the years, through her books and numerous talks, Sherry Turkle has explained the dangers of people trying to replace each other with machines including the smartphone and robots, but the world seems to have taken little heed as today we see companies inventing robots for all sorts of tasks and even for human relationships. Remember the Chinese inventor of a female robot whom he married in 2017? And just earlier this month, Samsung demoed the artificial human it is making. But our faith in robots being good for us is so strong that we even let them loose on our children, as evidenced by the robot toys being handed to them.

Miko 2, an educational robot for kids

We decided to explore one such toy, Miko 2, an educational robot for kids, and see why the Mumbai-based startup, Miko, thinks children should use robots. The company was founded in October 2014 by three IIT Bombay post-graduates with an eye to solving ‘grave consumer problems’ using AI products. “We realised that today kids get hooked on to smartphones and tablets at a very young age,” said the co-founder Sneh Vaswani. “And that is something parents dislike although they don’t want their children to stop using technology because very other child has access to it. This pointed us to the fact that parents need a trusted gateway to technology which helps with their education and development safely.” Vaswani pointed out that everything else in technology is really designed for adults, not for kids. And that is what led the team to create a robot. Miko 2 is available on Amazon for Rs 24,999. It’s described as an advanced personal robot that engages, educates and entertains your child. Mumbai-based startup Miko, says their robot is India's first social robotics start-up focused on a consumer product powered by AI.

Miko 2 looks much like you would expect a little robot to be. It’s a little thing in red, green or blue. It has a generally cute look and has no sharp edges so as to be quite safe when handled by kids. It isn’t just meant to be a robot but ‘a friend that engages children in playful learning and makes them smarter’. It has been developed to be a ‘powerhouse of knowledge’ and the company says it is ‘loved by children and adored by parents’. The robot has a bit of personality and is apparently emotionally intelligent. It can self-learn, proactively initiate conversations, map its environment and respond to multiple voices.

Play to learn

The big lure for parents is that Miko 2 has knowledge of over 1000+ academic topics and uses a conversational learning format to take up syllabus revisions, spelling and grammar, maths and reasoning, general knowledge and fun-facts, news and events, Miko 2 claims to aid in a child's cognitive development. The content is constantly updated with the help of academicians, psychologists, and other knowledge partners. Miko 2 also behaves in a curious, talkative, expressive, and observant manner, the idea being to creates a bond with every child by adapting the robot personality. It’s also full of learning games including quizzes, riddles, jokes and stories and challenges. And of course there are songs and music to make sure no child is bored. In an era of increased screen time, the company thinks it’s better to let kids engage in something that’s educational and fun. “Miko is able to have a back-and-forth conversation with a child,” says Vaswani, “It learns the child’s likes and dislikes and is able to initiate a conversation based on that information. So, if a child likes sports, it could ask about the day at school, whether there was any football today, how many goals did the child score, and other such questions. During that journey Miko will also include learning.”

The Miko platform is open to content developers and can take in more and specific content. But it is not open to any third parties for marketing or even controlling the conversation which is only owned by the parents who can ask the company to delete conversation history as well.

Parenting tool

Miko 2’s promise is that it will help parents to take care of their 5 to 10 year-old children even when they are away. It can allow parents to make calls on it to the child and even remotely take control of it. The company sees it as an important tool for modern parenting. The company has taken their footprint beyond India to UK and the Middle East.

To get back to Sherry Turkle however, a robot being a friend is exactly what she believes is worrisome. No matter how many times you were to tell a child that a robot is not a person or even a living thing but a machine, robots are being created to be more and more human-like with appealing expressions and gestures and a show of emotions in a more life-like manner. Much as an imaginary friend would do, a robot would end up teaching a child, in its formative years, things that are mot actually true to life.

For example, that the child can have attention at any time at all — not true when interacting with actual people. It can tamper with the learning of empathy and the development of real relationships in the context of real emotions not ‘as-if’ demonstrations of feeling as with a robot. As toys like these become increasingly available however, perhaps increased vigilance from parents is needed including the limiting of the amount of time a child can spend with such a toy.

Published on January 27, 2020

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