From ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Could the use of robots take some of the workload off teachers, add engagement among students, and ultimately invigorate learning by taking it to a new level that is more consonant with the everyday experiences of young people? Do robots have the potential to become full-fledged educators and further push human teachers out of the profession? The preponderance of opinion on this subject is that, just as AI and medical technology are not going to eliminate doctors, robot teachers will never replace human teachers. Rather, they will change the job of teaching.
A 2017 study led by Google executive James Manyika suggested that skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, and communication will always be needed in the classroom and that robots aren’t likely to provide them at the same level that humans naturally do. But robot teachers do bring advantages, such as a depth of subject knowledge that teachers can’t match, and they’re great for student engagement.
The teacher and robot can complement each other in new ways, with the teacher facilitating interactions between robots and students. So far, this is the case with teaching “assistants” being adopted now in China, Japan, the U.S., and Europe. In this scenario, the robot (usually the SoftBank child-size robot NAO) is a tool for teaching mainly science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM subjects), but the teacher is very involved in planning, overseeing, and evaluating progress. The students get an entertaining and enriched learning experience, and some of the teaching load is taken off the teacher. At least, that’s what researchers have been able to observe so far.
To be sure, there are some powerful arguments for having robots in the classroom. A not-to-be-underestimated one is that robots “speak the language” of today’s children, who have been steeped in technology since birth. These children are adept at navigating a media-rich environment that is highly visual and interactive. They are plugged into the Internet 24-7. They consume music, games, and huge numbers of videos on a weekly basis. They expect to be dazzled because they are used to being dazzled by more and more spectacular displays of digital artistry. Education has to compete with social media and the entertainment vehicles of students’ everyday lives.
Another compelling argument for teaching robots is that they help prepare students for the technological realities they will encounter in the real world when robots will be ubiquitous. From childhood on, they will be interacting and collaborating with robots in every sphere of their lives from the jobs they do to dealing with retail robots and helper robots in the home. Including robots in the classroom is one way of making sure that children of all socioeconomic backgrounds will be better prepared for a highly automated age, when successfully using robots will be as essential as reading and writing. We’ve already crossed this threshold with computers and smartphones.
Students need multimedia entertainment with their teaching. This is something robots can provide through their ability to connect to the Internet and act as a centralized host to videos, music, and games. Children also need interaction, something robots can deliver up to a point, but which humans can surpass. The education of a child is not just intended to make them technologically functional in a wired world, it’s to help them grow in intellectual, creative, social, and emotional ways. When considered through this perspective, it opens the door to questions concerning just how far robots should go. Robots don’t just teach and engage children; they’re designed to tug at their heartstrings.
It’s no coincidence that many toy makers and manufacturers are designing cute robots that look and behave like real children or animals, says Turkle. “When they make eye contact and gesture toward us, they predispose us to view them as thinking and caring,” she has written in The Washington Post. “They are designed to be cute, to provide a nurturing response” from the child. As mentioned previously, this nurturing experience is a powerful vehicle for drawing children in and promoting strong attachment. But should children really love their robots?
ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold (January 9, 2024).
St. Martin’s Publishing Group
The problem, once again, is that a child can be lulled into thinking that she’s in an actual relationship, when a robot can’t possibly love her back. If adults have these vulnerabilities, what might such asymmetrical relationships do to the emotional development of a small child? Turkle notes that while we tend to ascribe a mind and emotions to a socially interactive robot, “simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is never feeling, and simulated love is never love.”
Always a consideration is the fact that in the first few years of life, a child’s brain is undergoing rapid growth and development that will form the foundation of their lifelong emotional health. These formative experiences are literally shaping the child’s brain, their expectations, and their view of the world and their place in it. In Alone Together, Turkle asks: What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we’re willing to outsource their care to a robot? A child might be superficially entertained by the robot while his self-esteem is systematically undermined.
Research has emerged showing that there are clear downsides to child-robot relationships.
Still, in the case of robot nannies in the home, is active, playful engagement with a robot for a few hours a day any more harmful than several hours in front of a TV or with an iPad? Some, like Xiong, regard interacting with a robot as better than mere passive entertainment. iPal’s manufacturers say that their robot can’t replace parents or teachers and is best used by three- to eight-year-olds after school, while they wait for their parents to get off work. But as robots become ever-more sophisticated, they’re expected to perform more of the tasks of day-to-day care and to be much more emotionally advanced. There is no question children will form deep attachments to some of them. And research has emerged showing that there are clear downsides to child-robot relationships.
Some studies, performed by Turkle and fellow MIT colleague Cynthia Breazeal, have revealed a darker side to the child-robot bond. Turkle has reported extensively on these studies in The Washington Post and in her book Alone Together. Most children love robots, but some act out their inner bully on the hapless machines, hitting and kicking them and otherwise trying to hurt them. The trouble is that the robot can’t fight back, teaching children that they can bully and abuse without consequences. As in any other robot relationship, such harmful behavior could carry over into the child’s human relationships.
And, ironically, it turns out that communicative machines don’t actually teach kids good communication skills. It’s well known that parent-child communication in the first three years of life sets the stage for a very young child’s intellectual and academic success. Verbal back-and-forth with parents and care-givers is like fuel for a child’s growing brain. One article that examined several types of play and their effect on children’s communication skills, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015, showed that babies who played with electronic toys—like the popular robot dog Aibo—show a decrease in both the quantity and quality of their language skills.
Anna V. Sosa of the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University studied twenty-six ten- to sixteen- month-old infants to compare the growth of their language skills after they played with three types of toys: electronic toys like a baby laptop and talking farm; traditional toys like wooden puzzles and building blocks; and books read aloud by their parents. The play that produced the most growth in verbal ability was having books read to them by a caregiver, followed by play with traditional toys. Language gains after playing with electronic toys came dead last. This form of play involved the least use of adult words, the least conversational turntaking, and the least verbalizations from the children. While the study sample was small, it’s not hard to extrapolate that no electronic toy or even more abled robot could supply the intimate responsiveness of a parent reading stories to a child, explaining new words, answering the child’s questions, and modeling the kind of back- and-forth interaction that promotes empathy and reciprocity in relationships.
Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools. But they can’t make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued. That’s the job of parents, and when parents abdicate this responsibility, it’s not only the child who misses out on one of life’s most profound experiences.
We really don’t know how the tech-savvy children of today will ultimately process their attachments to robots and whether they will be excessively predisposed to choosing robot companionship over that of humans. It’s possible their techno literacy will draw for them a bold line between real life and a quasi-imaginary history with a robot. But it will be decades before we see long-term studies culminating in sufficient data to help scientists, and the rest of us, to parse out the effects of a lifetime spent with robots.
This is an excerpt from ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold. The book will be published on January 9, 2024.
The naked mole rat won’t win any beauty contests, but it could possibly win in the talent category. Its superpower: fighting the aging process to live several times longer than other animals its size, in a state of youthful vigor.
It’s believed that naked mole rats experience all the normal processes of wear and tear over their lifespan, but that they’re exceptionally good at repairing the damage from oxygen free radicals and the DNA errors that accumulate over time. Even though they possess genes that make them vulnerable to cancer, they rarely develop the disease, or any other age-related disease, for that matter. Naked mole rats are known to live for over 40 years without any signs of aging, whereas mice live on average about two years and are highly prone to cancer.
Now, these remarkable animals may be able to share their superpower with other species. In August, a study provided what may be the first proof-of-principle that genetic material transferred from one species can increase both longevity and healthspan in a recipient animal.
There are several theories to explain the naked mole rat’s longevity, but the one explored in the study, published in Nature, is based on the abundance of large-molecule high-molecular mass hyaluronic acid (HMM-HA).
A small molecule version of hyaluronic acid is commonly added to skin moisturizers and cosmetics that are marketed as ways to keep skin youthful, but this version, just applied to the skin, won’t have a dramatic anti-aging effect. The naked mole rat has an abundance of the much-larger molecule, HMM-HA, in the chemical-rich solution between cells throughout its body. But does the HMM-HA actually govern the extraordinary longevity and healthspan of the naked mole rat?
To answer this question, Dr. Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester, and her team created a mouse model containing the naked mole rat gene hyaluronic acid synthase 2, or nmrHas2. It turned out that the mice receiving this gene during their early developmental stage also expressed HMM-HA.
The researchers found that the effects of the HMM-HA molecule in the mice were marked and diverse, exceeding the expectations of the study’s co-authors. High-molecular mass hyaluronic acid was more abundant in kidneys, muscles and other organs of the Has2 mice compared to control mice.
In addition, the altered mice had a much lower incidence of cancer. Seventy percent of the control mice eventually developed cancer, compared to only 57 percent of the altered mice, even after several techniques were used to induce the disease. The biggest difference occurred in the oldest mice, where the cancer incidence for the Has2 mice and the controls was 47 percent and 83 percent, respectively.
With regard to longevity, Has2 males increased their lifespan by more than 16 percent and the females added 9 percent. “Somehow the effect is much more pronounced in male mice, and we don’t have a perfect answer as to why,” says Dr. Gorbunova. Another improvement was in the healthspan of the altered mice: the number of years they spent in a state of relative youth. There’s a frailty index for mice, which includes body weight, mobility, grip strength, vision and hearing, in addition to overall conditions such as the health of the coat and body temperature. The Has2 mice scored lower in frailty than the controls by all measures. They also performed better in tests of locomotion and coordination, and in bone density.
Gorbunova’s results show that a gene artificially transferred from one species can have a beneficial effect on another species for longevity, something that had never been demonstrated before. This finding is “quite spectacular,” said Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was not involved in the study.
Just as in lifespan, the effects in various organs and systems varied between the sexes, a common occurrence in longevity research, according to Austad, who authored the book Methuselah’s Zoo and specializes in the biological differences between species. “We have ten drugs that we can give to mice to make them live longer,” he says, “and all of them work better in one sex than in the other.” This suggests that more attention needs to be paid to the different effects of anti-aging strategies between the sexes, as well as gender differences in healthspan.
According to the study authors, the HMM-HA molecule delivered these benefits by reducing inflammation and senescence (cell dysfunction and death). The molecule also caused a variety of other benefits, including an upregulation of genes involved in the function of mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells. These mechanisms are implicated in the aging process, and in human disease. In humans, virtually all noncommunicable diseases entail an acceleration of the aging process.
So, would the gene that creates HMM-HA have similar benefits for longevity in humans? “We think about these questions a lot,” Gorbunova says. “It’s been done by injections in certain patients, but it has a local effect in the treatment of organs affected by disease,” which could offer some benefits, she added.
“Mice are very short-lived and cancer-prone, and the effects are small,” says Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But they did live longer and stay healthy longer, which is remarkable.”
As for a gene therapy to introduce the nmrHas2 gene into humans to obtain a global result, she’s skeptical because of the complexity involved. Gorbunova notes that there are potential dangers in introducing an animal gene into humans, such as immune responses or allergic reactions.
Austad is equally cautious about a gene therapy. “What this study says is that you can take something a species does well and transfer at least some of that into a new species. It opens up the way, but you may need to transfer six or eight or ten genes into a human” to get the large effect desired. Humans are much more complex and contain many more genes than mice, and all systems in a biological organism are intricately connected. One naked mole rat gene may not make a big difference when it interacts with human genes, metabolism and physiology.
Still, Austad thinks the possibilities are tantalizing. “Mice are very short-lived and cancer-prone, and the effects are small,” he says. “But they did live longer and stay healthy longer, which is remarkable.”
As for further research, says Austad, “The first place to look is the skin” to see if the nmrHas2 gene and the HMM-HA it produces can reduce the chance of cancer. Austad added that it would be straightforward to use the gene to try to prevent cancer in skin cells in a dish to see if it prevents cancer. It would not be hard to do. “We don’t know of any downsides to hyaluronic acid in skin, because it’s already used in skin products, and you could look at this fairly quickly.”
“Aging mechanisms evolved over a long time,” says Gorbunova, “so in aging there are multiple mechanisms working together that affect each other.” All of these processes could play a part and almost certainly differ from one species to the next.
“HMM-HA molecules are large, but we’re now looking for a small-molecule drug that would slow it’s breakdown,” she says. “And we’re looking for inhibitors, now being tested in mice, that would hinder the breakdown of hyaluronic acid.” Gorbunova has found a natural, plant-based product that acts as an inhibitor and could potentially be taken as a supplement. Ultimately, though, she thinks that drug development will be the safest and most effective approach to delivering HMM-HA for anti-aging.
The field of regenerative medicine had a shaky start. In 2002, when news spread about the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, a raucous debate ensued. Scary headlines and organized opposition groups put pressure on government leaders, who responded by tightening restrictions on this type of research.
Fast forward to today, and regenerative medicine, which focuses on making unhealthy tissues and organs healthy again, is rewriting the code to healing many disorders, though it’s still young enough to be considered nascent. What started as one of the most controversial areas in medicine is now promising to transform it.
Progress in the lab has addressed previous concerns. Back in the early 2000s, some of the most fervent controversy centered around somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the process used by scientists to produce Dolly. There was fear that this technique could be used in humans, with possibly adverse effects, considering the many medical problems of the animals who had been cloned.
But today, scientists have discovered better approaches with fewer risks. Pioneers in the field are embracing new possibilities for cellular reprogramming, 3D organ printing, AI collaboration, and even growing organs in space. It could bring a new era of personalized medicine for longer, healthier lives - while potentially sparking new controversies.
Engineering tissues from amniotic fluids
Work in regenerative medicine seeks to reverse damage to organs and tissues by culling, modifying and replacing cells in the human body. Scientists in this field reach deep into the mechanisms of diseases and the breakdowns of cells, the little workhorses that perform all life-giving processes. If cells can’t do their jobs, they take whole organs and systems down with them. Regenerative medicine seeks to harness the power of healthy cells derived from stem cells to do the work that can literally restore patients to a state of health—by giving them healthy, functioning tissues and organs.
Modern-day regenerative medicine takes its origin from the 1998 isolation of human embryonic stem cells, first achieved by John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University. Gearhart isolated the pluripotent cells that can differentiate into virtually every kind of cell in the human body. There was a raging controversy about the use of these cells in research because at that time they came exclusively from early-stage embryos or fetal tissue.
Back then, the highly controversial SCNT cells were the only way to produce genetically matched stem cells to treat patients. Since then, the picture has changed radically because other sources of highly versatile stem cells have been developed. Today, scientists can derive stem cells from amniotic fluid or reprogram patients’ skin cells back to an immature state, so they can differentiate into whatever types of cells the patient needs.
In the context of medical history, the field of regenerative medicine is progressing at a dizzying speed. But for those living with aggressive or chronic illnesses, it can seem that the wheels of medical progress grind slowly.
The ethical debate has been dialed back and, in the last few decades, the field has produced important innovations, spurring the development of whole new FDA processes and categories, says Anthony Atala, a bioengineer and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Atala and a large team of researchers have pioneered many of the first applications of 3D printed tissues and organs using cells developed from patients or those obtained from amniotic fluid or placentas.
His lab, considered to be the largest devoted to translational regenerative medicine, is currently working with 40 different engineered human tissues. Sixteen of them have been transplanted into patients. That includes skin, bladders, urethras, muscles, kidneys and vaginal organs, to name just a few.
These achievements are made possible by converging disciplines and technologies, such as cell therapies, bioengineering, gene editing, nanotechnology and 3D printing, to create living tissues and organs for human transplants. Atala is currently overseeing clinical trials to test the safety of tissues and organs engineered in the Wake Forest lab, a significant step toward FDA approval.
In the context of medical history, the field of regenerative medicine is progressing at a dizzying speed. But for those living with aggressive or chronic illnesses, it can seem that the wheels of medical progress grind slowly.
“It’s never fast enough,” Atala says. “We want to get new treatments into the clinic faster, but the reality is that you have to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s—and rightly so, for the sake of patient safety. People want predictions, but you can never predict how much work it will take to go from conceptualization to utilization.”
As a surgeon, he also treats patients and is able to follow transplant recipients. “At the end of the day, the goal is to get these technologies into patients, and working with the patients is a very rewarding experience,” he says. Will the 3D printed organs ever outrun the shortage of donated organs? “That’s the hope,” Atala says, “but this technology won’t eliminate the need for them in our lifetime.”
New methods are out of this world
Jeanne Loring, another pioneer in the field and director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, says that investment in regenerative medicine is not only paying off, but is leading to truly personalized medicine, one of the holy grails of modern science.
This is because a patient’s own skin cells can be reprogrammed to become replacements for various malfunctioning cells causing incurable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration and Parkinson’s. If the cells are obtained from a source other than the patient, they can be rejected by the immune system. This means that patients need lifelong immunosuppression, which isn’t ideal. “With Covid,” says Loring, “I became acutely aware of the dangers of immunosuppression.” Using the patient’s own cells eliminates that problem.
Microgravity conditions make it easier for the cells to form three-dimensional structures, which could more easily lead to the growing of whole organs. In fact, Loring's own cells have been sent to the ISS for study.
Loring has a special interest in neurons, or brain cells that can be developed by manipulating cells found in the skin. She is looking to eventually treat Parkinson’s disease using them. The manipulated cells produce dopamine, the critical hormone or neurotransmitter lacking in the brains of patients. A company she founded plans to start a Phase I clinical trial using cell therapies for Parkinson’s soon, she says.
This is the culmination of many years of basic research on her part, some of it on her own cells. In 2007, Loring had her own cells reprogrammed, so there’s a cell line that carries her DNA. “They’re just like embryonic stem cells, but personal,” she said.
Loring has another special interest—sending immature cells into space to be studied at the International Space Station. There, microgravity conditions make it easier for the cells to form three-dimensional structures, which could more easily lead to the growing of whole organs. In fact, her own cells have been sent to the ISS for study. “My colleagues and I have completed four missions at the space station,” she says. “The last cells came down last August. They were my own cells reprogrammed into pluripotent cells in 2009. No one else can say that,” she adds.
Future controversies and tipping points
Although the original SCNT debate has calmed down, more controversies may arise, Loring thinks.
One of them could concern growing synthetic embryos. The embryos are ultimately derived from embryonic stem cells, and it’s not clear to what stage these embryos can or will be grown in an artificial uterus—another recent invention. The science, so far done only in animals, is still new and has not been widely publicized but, eventually, “People will notice the production of synthetic embryos and growing them in an artificial uterus,” Loring says. It’s likely to incite many of the same reactions as the use of embryonic stem cells.
Bernard Siegel, the founder and director of the Regenerative Medicine Foundation and executive director of the newly formed Healthspan Action Coalition (HSAC), believes that stem cell science is rapidly approaching tipping point and changing all of medical science. (For disclosure, I do consulting work for HSAC). Siegel says that regenerative medicine has become a new pillar of medicine that has recently been fast-tracked by new technology.
Artificial intelligence is speeding up discoveries and the convergence of key disciplines, as demonstrated in Atala’s lab, which is creating complex new medical products that replace the body’s natural parts. Just as importantly, those parts are genetically matched and pose no risk of rejection.
These new technologies must be regulated, which can be a challenge, Siegel notes. “Cell therapies represent a challenge to the existing regulatory structure, including payment, reimbursement and infrastructure issues that 20 years ago, didn’t exist.” Now the FDA and other agencies are faced with this revolution, and they’re just beginning to adapt.
Siegel cited the 2021 FDA Modernization Act as a major step. The Act allows drug developers to use alternatives to animal testing in investigating the safety and efficacy of new compounds, loosening the agency’s requirement for extensive animal testing before a new drug can move into clinical trials. The Act is a recognition of the profound effect that cultured human cells are having on research. Being able to test drugs using actual human cells promises to be far safer and more accurate in predicting how they will act in the human body, and could accelerate drug development.
Siegel, a longtime veteran and founding father of several health advocacy organizations, believes this work helped bring cell therapies to people sooner rather than later. His new focus, through the HSAC, is to leverage regenerative medicine into extending not just the lifespan but the worldwide human healthspan, the period of life lived with health and vigor. “When you look at the HSAC as a tree,” asks Siegel, “what are the roots of that tree? Stem cell science and the huge ecosystem it has created.” The study of human aging is another root to the tree that has potential to lengthen healthspans.
The revolutionary science underlying the extension of the healthspan needs to be available to the whole world, Siegel says. “We need to take all these roots and come up with a way to improve the life of all mankind,” he says. “Everyone should be able to take advantage of this promising new world.”