We are halfway into January and we have what is arguably being called the first hit of 2023 with the sci-fi horror comedy M3GAN (pronounced as Megan). Focusing on the titular robotic babysitter gone rogue, the film is being praised for its intentionally campy scares and ultimately, its real-world consequences.
The film’s realistic techno-dystopia: M3GAN is quite satirical in nature, complete with its own Alexa-like home gadgets, tech-addicted pre-teenagers and a robotic villain who can act like the possessed girl from The Exorcist in one scene and sing Sia’s Titanium as a lullaby for a child in another. All jokes aside and without any preaching, M3GAN does serve as a concerning reminder of what is to come.
Much like a Gen-Z-er clinging on to their phone and fighting for their screentime, the pre-teen protagonist Cady also fights for control over M3GAN. The only difference here is that, unlike a phone, the “screentime” cannot be controlled as the robot herself gets attached to the child.
With rich parents who can afford a robotic assistant for their young ones, these androids themselves might end up becoming the parental figures. And so, the parents wouldn’t be able to afford to make their kids cry at any cost lest the “parent” robot ends up striking back. This is the dystopian reality that M3GAN is hinting at but thankfully, robotics hasn’t advanced to this level.
So, are there actual robot nannies? Yes.
iPal from China: While the robot nannies of the 21st century haven’t advanced to the fictional levels of M3GAN, they are very much a reality. Back in 2017, it was reported that Chinese parents were willing to shell out £1,050 for a robotic assistant called iPal which appeared as a three-foot tall humanoid and was capable enough to give children math lessons, crack jokes with them, and make conservation through a tablet on his chest.
Created by the robotics company Avatarmind, the robot itself was designed to act like a child between the ages of 4 to 8, doubling as a sibling to the child and relieving some of the burden off the wealthier parents of China. Speaking in two languages (Mandarin and English), iPal began shipping in China in 2017 with a limited sale in American markets in the following year.
Much like M3GAN, iPal also reminded kids to wash their hands before meals, told them what to wear according to the weather, and set the alarm to wake them up in the morning.
But could parents leave their kids alone with iPal? A smartphone app allowed the parents to stay connected with the robot and see and hear everything (but only within a limited signal range). Thankfully, no cases of “rogue iPals” were reported and the robots are still in the market.
In fact, there is even an “Autism Pack” for iPal that aims to provide “robot-assisted therapy for Autism”. However, we are yet to find legitimate sources that can support its efficiency in actually helping out kids with autism).
Bosch’s now-cancelled Kuri: Launched in 2015 under a subsidiary of German tech giant Bosch, the $799 robot Kuri aimed to keep an eye on the kids albeit with a miniature presence. The robot seemed like an evolved “Roomba”, moving on wheels and shaped like a cute white blob reminiscent of Baymax from Disney’s Big Hero 6. And much like the Star Wars robots R2D2 and BB8, Kuri spoke back in its own robotic language of chirps and beeps.
With facial recognition and the ability to understand voice commands, Kuri also included usual features such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a 1080-pixel camera.
Sadly, Kuri never went public and all of its buzz came only in tech events. With its control app released in June 2018, Bosch suddenly announced that it has cancelled the robot’s sale the next month. It had taken the scientists of the Bosch-funded Mayfield Robotics over three years to come up with Kuri. Bosch never gave the exact reasons behind its cancellation but some tech observers noted how the reason might have been that Kuri’s seemingly rudimentary tech might not have been profitable in the future.
The stone age of the home robot market: Leave alone robot nannies, just the usual home robots have had limited capabilities. Examples include Sony’s robotic pet Aibo, the table fan-looking Jibo, and the Alexa-shaped projector robot Keecher. All of them would have been unimaginable in last century but they can still only perform limited physical functions and aren’t fully capable to form mental thoughts. To quote tech consultant Ben Wood from a 2018 BBC article, "We're in the stone age of the home robot market,"
Regardless of the technological limitations, price is obviously a major issue with none of the robot companions being sold for a cheap bargain. Take the example of Japan’s Pepper which was marketed as a “personal companion robot” that is capable of reading and even responding slightly to human emotions. But the 64-pound robot is sold at $1,700 with an additional $134 a month for maintenance and a monthly insurance of $89.
So, what if we actually get a M3GAN? With robotics being a rapidly changing industry, the possibility of a real-life M3GAN is worth thinking about. Irish novelist Aifric Campbell authored a psychological sci-fi thriller called The Love Makers that also included essays by leading researchers who write about their views on an Artificial Intelligence-driven future.
Ethics and Technology professor Joanna J Bryson and Ronny Bogani, the founder of a law firm dabbling in AI-related cases, co-authored one of the essays titled “Robot Nannies Don’t Love”. The authors express their concerns about how the children will side with their robot nannies especially as they grow up to become more socially aware.
The essay also adds that robotic companies are most likely to undersell the AI and free-thinking capabilities of their products especially if they are intended for younger users. For if any “robot nanny and toddler tragedy” arises, the company will obviously not want to be liable for the damage caused. Hence, the future market for robot babysitters is on a slippery slope especially given its focus on the pre-teen demographic. M3GAN’s box office success and critical acclaim have already prompted its studios to produce a sequel. Here’s hoping M3GAN 2 will provide some answers!