Will Robots Replace Our Children?

The current buzz is that robots are set to take our jobs – whether we work on the factory floor or the halls of finance. What could possibly be next? Perhaps robots will even replace our children.

Robots are everywhere. They are our helping hands in manufacturing. Autonomous or driverless cars promise to be our robotic taxis. Drones hover overhead. ‘Bots scurry across our floors to keep them clean while others cut our lawns. The current buzz is that robots are set to take our jobs – whether we work on the factory floor or the halls of finance. What could possibly be next? Perhaps robots will even replace our children.


Global demographic trends show that we are an aging world. The growing proportion of older adults throughout Europe, many parts of Asia (particularly Japan, South Korea and China) and North America are outpacing the population of young people. This gray population explosion is due, in part, to extended longevity, but also due to dramatic declines in fertility – the number of children per female. Fertility rates in many nations are well below the necessary level of 2.1 children per female to simply maintain the population. For example, Australia and Brazil share a fertility rate of 1.7 children per female, China has dropped to 1.6, Japan and Germany are at 1.4, and even the relatively young United States is at 1.87. In short, the world’s most industrialized nations as well as many of planet’s developing economies are witnessing an unprecedented drop in the number of children. While fewer children presents a number of social questions such as the availability of a robust workforce and general economic growth – the birth dearth also portends a troubling future of caring for an aging society.

Caring for an aging society has always been done by a complex combination of community support, e.g., religious organizations, non-profits, government programs, neighbors but above all – family. Providing assistance to an older loved one is most often provided by a spouse followed by an adult child. Historically, large families were more than a means of survival when a high infant fatality rate was the norm or a way to provide the labor necessary to power a family farm. Children have always been a key part of retirement planning and care in older age. Now there are far fewer children. And many of those precious few sons and daughters may have moved far away from the family home to seek economic opportunity. What if there are no children or no children near by?

Enter the robots. Robotics is advancing rapidly on many levels – design, artificial intelligence and function. Robots are being developed to do more than 'work': they are now being developed to provide companionship, conversation and care – jobs once done by family. Researchers at the Fraunhoffer Institute in Germany developed Care-o-Bot, a servicebot that tells stories, plays music and even calls for help in an emergency. Japan’s research community has long been on the frontier of robotics and aging. One example is Robear a bear-like robot that is gentle enough to lift and move a frail older adult. Now from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University is Nadine. Standing 5 feet 7 inches or 1.7 meters tall Nadine is a humanoid robot that seems deep in the uncanny valley of being very human-like but…not. Nadine can join you in conversation, recall your last exchange and show a wide range of facial expressions and body language.

Robots caring for an aging society is somewhere between very cool…and yes, creepy. However, do we have a choice in a world with far smaller or absent families? What roles are we willing to delegate to our artificial companions? Might we become so accustom to their robotic smile that we will forget that they are, in fact, AI? If so, will we someday welcome a hug from a robot?

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.