“The latest product from Anki, a San Francisco robotics startup, Cozmo is part of a new wave of affordable toy robots that promise a level of emotional engagement far beyond anything we’ve seen before. They are pitched not merely as playthings, but as little buddies. Toy firm Spin Master has its equivalent arriving in the shops for Christmas: the bigger, more retro-looking Meccano MAX. “It’s been designed to modify its behaviour as it learns about its owner and the surrounding world,” explains Spin Master’s brand manager, Becca Hanlon. “MAX basically tailors itself to become a better friend.” Hasbro, meanwhile, is unleashing the FurReal Makers Proto Max, essentially a programmable puppy that, says Craig Wilkins, Hasbro’s marketing director, “allows kids to create their ultimate pet and customise its personality through coding on an app”.”

“To Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the arrival of Cozmo, MAX and co undoubtedly raises concerns. Six years ago, Winfield helped draw up five principles of robotics for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC). “One of those principles,” he explains, “is that robots should never be designed to deceive. In other words, that their machine nature should be transparent. We’re concerned about vulnerable people – they might be children, disabled people, elderly people, people with dementia – coming to believe that the robot cares for them.””

“I mention the way the Meccano MAX, when switched on, will perkily announce that it’s just had the strangest dream. “I think it’s inappropriate for toys to be programmed with that kind of language,” says Winfield. “It builds the completely incorrect belief that this robot is a person. Robots are not people – that’s a fundamental principle. A robot clearly cannot have feelings. You and I understand that, but some people might not. And that might in turn lead to a dependency.” He cites the Tamagotchi effect, referring to the digital pet craze of the 1990s, where the character could “die” if it did not get enough attention. “It’s not hard to imagine a kind of Tamagotchi effect on steroids,” he warns. “And it’s also not hard to imagine unscrupulous manufacturers exploiting that and saying, ‘Unless you pay us, your robot will die’. I mean, that’s ridiculous, but you get the idea!””

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