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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Can Robot Children Help Save the Earth?

Can Robot Children Help Save the World?

Our planet is in trouble because of the environmental impact of the world's growing population. Carbon dioxide levels will soon hit the level of 400 parts per million. Scientists predict that the average global temperature may rise between 2 and 5 degrees centigrade (as much as 9 degrees fahrenheit) by the year 2100. Fish stocks are declining, and the world's oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, which might one day cause a catastrophic mass extinction event. The global supply of fresh water is declining, and large aquifers in the US and other countries are being drained to dangerous levels. Soil fertility levels are declining, and more and more forests are shrinking because of the global pressure to turn forests into farmland or grazing land.

These problems are all related to the environmental footprint of human beings. As population grows, man's effect on the environment grows. As people consume more and more to mimic the lifestyle of the Affluent Society of western countries, man's ecological footprint gets worse. The average American's carbon footprint exceeds 20 tons of carbon per year. Over a 80 year lifespan, that adds up to 1600 tons of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere.

One way to reduce the bad effect of human society on the environment is to reduce population growth. But other than just sexuality itself, there is a major factor that tends to lead to population growth: the simple fact that having children around is lots of fun. When I am on my deathbed and want to think back on my best times on this planet, I will probably remember playing with my children in the park, or playing with my kids in my back yard, or reading a story book to my children. Quite a few parents may think that teenagers can be trouble, but almost all parents love having around the house a child of 6 or 7.

But what if there was some way to give couples the fun of having a small child around the house, without the heavy environmental impact of having a child? Before long, there may well be a way of doing that. The solution: robot children.

Robot children would be huggable humanoid machines designed to simulate small children. For a married couple the rationale behind obtaining a robot child would be to experience some of the joys of parenthood, with lots of nice companionship, but without the environmental cost of adding a new human being to the planet.

For such an invention to make sense from an environmental standpoint, we should not imagine a child robot that is moving around 14 hours a day. The best type of child robot would be one that would be designed to move around only a few hours on weekdays, after their parents returned from work. That would save a lot of energy. There are several ways in which that might be handled. The crudest way might simply be to equip the child robot with an on/off switch. Parents could then turn on the robot when they came home from work, and turn it off when they went to bed.

The only problem with that approach is that the parents would then be reminded every day that their child robot is not a real child. It might be best to avoid such reminders. One can imagine various ways of limiting the robot's energy use without reminding the parents that the robot child is just a robot. One way would be for the child robot to be programmed to take itself to bed every night. After saying good night to its parents, the robot could then plug itself into a recharging unit, lie on a bed, and pretend to be sleeping. It could then wake up when the parents returned from work the next evening.

Another approach might be for parents to drop their robot children off every morning to a kind of pretend school. Inside the school the robots would do nothing but silently recharge their batteries. The parents could then pick up their robot children from the school.

How soon could such robot children be available? As early as the year 2040. Creating a robot that simulates a small child is vastly easier than creating a robot that could pass for a full grown human being. The robot child would not need to be able to read, write, or do math, as it would not actually attend school. The robot child would merely need to be able to engage in simple conversations with the wedded couple that obtained the robot, and would also need to be able to play a few simple games such as catch and tag. The ELISA computer program created during the 1960's showed that a fairly simple computer program can fool people into thinking they are talking to a real adult person. It is presumably even easier to write a program that can fool you into thinking you are talking to a child.

Robot children could have additional programming allowing them to do chores around the house (or even look after very aged people). The average person would probably greatly prefer to have a household chore robot that simulated a real family member, than to have some big metallic robot helper like the robot maid in the Jetsons TV show.

We can imagine a government offering free robot children to married couples, to reduce the nation's carbon footprint. But the government might need to be selective about who qualified for getting the robot children. The rule should presumably be: the less intelligent the married couple, the more likely they should be to qualify for free robot children.

The rationale behind such an approach is rather obvious. When a very smart man and a very smart woman mate to have a child, it is good for the overall gene pool of the planet, because the child will probably be pretty smart. But when a stupid man and a stupid woman mate to have a child, it is not good for the overall gene pool of the planet. So imagine if a government offered free robot children to newly married couples with lesser intelligence (as determined by their grades, SAT scores, and college record). And imagine that the couples were told they would need to tearfully return their robot children to a government office (never to see them again) if the couple ever had a real child. This would help to increase the quality of the gene pool, by discouraging reproduction by couples with below average intelligence.

This might result in a “win/win” situation: a win for the planet (because it would help to curb overpopulation), and also a win for the human gene pool.