【Xinhuanet】China Focus: Robot companion for kids sparks debate about parent-child relations

BEIJING, Nov. 2 (Xinhua) -- She can dance, teach English, tell stories and answer general knowledge questions. Xiaoke the robot has been touted as an ideal companion for Chinese children.

At a house in the city of Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian Province, Xiaoke is playing with her new friend, a six-year-old girl. The girl's father sits beside them, checking e-mails and writing reports.

Suddenly the girl giggles and lifts up Xiaoke. The robot, the shape of a ball with a flat screen at the front, has an expression of fear on her face and yells: "I lost my balance. Hold me tight."

The girl's father Chen Xiaodong, who works in an electronics design company, says the robot is good for the family. "My wife and I are very busy and end up having little time to be with our daughter," he said.

Chen is among more than 1,000 free trial users of Xiaoke on the Chinese mainland. Most of them are young working parents who struggle to find time to be with their children, to read bedtime stories and play games.

Standing 30 cm tall, weighing 3 kg and costing 3,000 yuan (around 431 U.S. dollars), Xiaoke was launched by Keeko Robot (Xiamen) Technology Co. Ltd. in September 2017.

It is programed to interact with children aged below six, offering education and company, according to Guo Changchen, Keeko's founder.

Guo said he has set up a joint venture with a Taiwan-based company, inking a deal to sell 30,000 devices to Taiwan consumers, adding, however, that the Chinese mainland market will be a new focal point in the future.

"Although I admit that robots cannot replace parents, not all parental companionships are quality companionships," Guo said.

For example, he said, if parents stare at phone screens and children never put down iPads, and they do not talk with each other in the same room, "it is not a real companionship".

Xiaoke is one of a number of AI-enabled robots to be marketed for family use in China, as a growing number of young parents struggle to balance work and family life.

According to statistics released by Taobao, a leading Chinese e-commerce platform, more than 10,000 online stores were selling companion robots for children at the end of October, up 60 percent year on year.

The booming new industry has, inevitably, triggered discussion about parent-child relationships.

Yang Jiong, a newspaper editor in Xiamen, allows his two-year-old son to play with a robot for two hours a day, reciting poems, singing and dancing, and listening to stories.

"He is our only child. We hoped he could find someone to play with. Compared with the smart and funny robot, parents may not be good playmates," Yang said.

However, not all parents share this view. Wang Lu, a 31-year-old foreign company employee in Beijing, said that she would not buy such a "pricey machine".

"The so-called robot may not be that high-tech. Meanwhile, no one can replace parents to read bedtime stories or walk the dog with the kids," Wang said.

Wang admits that she and her husband sometimes find it hard to provide quality companionship for their daughter. They have agreed not to touch mobile phones at home unless there are urgent calls, but that promise is always broken.

"People are more likely to rely on mobile phones these days, gossiping with friends, shopping, watching movies, and checking news and weather," she said.

Almost half of Chinese parents play with their mobile phones while talking with their children, according to a recent survey of more than 4,100 primary and middle school students across six Chinese cities.

Sun Hongyan, director of the Childhood Research Institute at the China Youth and Children Research Center, said the interaction between parents and children has changed in the digital age and the use of electronic devices has become one of the reasons for parent-child conflicts.

In September, scores of children took to the streets of Hamburg, Germany to protest their parents' excessive use of smartphones.

"Many parents think that talk is communication," Sun said. "It is not. Effective communication should take into account the topic, tone, eye contact and emotional exchange. These are what robots cannot offer."

"Robots can be a complementary tool to relieve parents' burdens and enrich children's lives. But it does not mean that parents can be freed from companionship," she said. Enditem