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Paul T Horgan: Robots encourage teenage pregnancies

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So the big news on the family front is that using robot babies instead of proper teaching to deter teenage girls from getting pregnant does not work. A human talking to another human is better than what is described as ‘virtual infant parenting’ (VIP). This must come as a relief. Our replacement by machines is being put off for a few more years. Phew.

Behind this headline is an article posted to The Lancet. This publication, the trade journal of the medical profession, takes no prisoners when it comes to readability, validating George Bernard Shaw’s statement about the professions. George Orwell would be shaking his head sadly and the density of the writing.

The methodology is described as follows:

In this school-based pragmatic cluster randomised controlled trial, eligible schools in Perth, Western Australia, were enrolled and randomised 1:1 to the intervention and control groups. Randomisation using a table of random numbers without blocking, stratification, or matching was done by a researcher who was masked to the identity of the schools.”

What is a school-based pragmatic cluster randomised controlled trial? A ‘pragmatic trial’ is one that uses real life conditions, like girls who go to school. ‘Cluster randomisation’ means that a group of subjects are randomly selected, like a school with girls in it. A ‘randomised controlled trial’ means that experimental subjects are randomly allocated to the new programme or to the control programme, where ‘traditional’ or non-treatment is provided.

So, it seems that girls from a set of schools determined randomly had conventional sex education. Girls from another set of schools received no such education. Instead they had a robot doll, a process itself dolled-up as ‘virtual infant parenting’. In essence it seems that instead of being properly educated, girls were simply given this electronic device, a set of rules and their responses were recorded and presumably commented on.

In the experimental group, the outcomes for the girls were recorded for some years after they had been part of the experiment. It was found that girls who had the dolls were more likely to become pregnant before 20 years of age than the girls who had parents and teachers guide them through how their bodies were changing between the ages of 13-15.

Nobody seems to be too concerned about the ethics of such a trial. Instead this news is received with bemusement or detached observation. This was actually human experimentation of the worst kind, resulting in teenage pregnancy or abortion, a consequence of a deliberate neglect in health education of people at a very vulnerable time in their life, giving them a toy to play with instead. It resembles the medical neglect of poverty-stricken syphilis-infected men for a forty-year experiment in Tuskegee, Alabama. That experiment only ended when the press published details. Had the press not done their job, perhaps it would still be going on.

The objective of VIP was to replace the wisdom of a girl’s elders and betters with a machine, presumably ushering in a Huxleyite automating of humanity, mentoring by machine and the like. George Lucas, he of ‘Star Wars’ fame, also had his vision of a robot-moderated humanity in ‘THX 1138’. It was not a positive visualisation.

A presumably highly-educated set of professionals, scientists, doctors, teachers, politicians, decided to change the lives of hundreds of girls and not necessarily for the better. Did anyone of them experience any qualms, reservations, concerns? Did any consider they were crossing a threshold? Did any resign in protest? There are no reports. O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!

I am of the Apollo generation, seeing technological progress as beneficial for humanity. The increased sophistication of automation is allowing humans to develop highly complex interactions with machines. Some people have effectively emigrated to cyberspace, spending more time on social media than interacting with the people around them. Unfortunately, the study and development of these new interactions seems to be conducted by those whose primary calling is the social sciences, an area which does not necessarily open itself to a wide range of thinking when it comes to human values, individualism, and ideology. Put simply, there is no such thing as a conservative sociologist. Had there been, that person would surely have pointed out the ethical issues of replacing an important and sensitive part of a girl’s education about her own body with the emanations of a machine. How amazing!

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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