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Viewpoint of Child Science Part2. Real and Virtual: Where is the boundary?

Part2. Real and Virtual: Where is the boundary?

Sakakihara: I am not sure whether a pediatrician like me can make a good summary (laughter) Responding to previous discussion, we have heard two keywords: real vs. virtual. Possible binomial equivalents of nature versus artificial things are human vs. robots. There is a similar relationship between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding. One is natural while the other is virtual-it may not be virtual since we can drink artificial milk, but it is something artificial, a thing like a robot. In the same way, there is a similar confrontational relationship between TV media and the reality.
Back to the point raised by Professor Sakura, one has DNA or genes while the other has memes. There is no good or bad genetic evolution in animals. That is to say, evolution is an outcome per se; any evolutionary process that cannot adapt to the surrounding environment will be eliminated. Therefore there is nothing good or bad. However, the fundamental value that the meme is which is better for human survival or longer life.
The issue of the meme is taken possibly because of an idea that meme can be controlled by human beings. Of course, people are influenced by memes but they can control them. Pediatrics is trying to address real contentious issues from a relatively middle-ground position such the nature of the mother-child relationship or the comparison between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding. There is no question that breast milk is the best for human beings from a biological perspective. There is little risk of allergy, atopic problems and infections. It does not mean, however, that artificial milk is not good. Babies can live on artificial milk. Nowadays, there is almost no nutritional difference between breast milk and artificial milk, especially in a clean country like Japan.

The gap between the virtual and real is closing. In fact, engineering people are working hard trying to minimize this gap. These days we simply cannot say that something virtual is always bad. Bottle-feeding is a good example. The world will not be any better without artificial milk. In developing countries where many mothers suffer from malnutrition, this would be a very serious problem. Artificial milk is making a definite contribution to the existence of human beings. The same is true for television and media. There is a concern that children will be less socialized and their development will be hampered. If there is no media, however, no information will be available. In developing countries like Vietnam, mothers are getting information about child rearing. In Vietnam the government is intentionally broadcasting such TV programs. They provide a great deal of information that encourages occasional weight measurement or explains the importance of vaccination. It seems to be difficult to make a distinction between natural and artificial, or virtual and non-virtual.

Miyashita: Thank you very much. Professor Hiraki, can you comment on computer games as an extension of TV and other media?

Hiraki: Recently we hear the word "game brain." For many years, however, ordinary parents have been concerned about children who are always playing games. However, I don't like the idea of generating a sense of fear or biased direction-although direction may not be a good word-about what is good or bad through scientific implications. Science should be science and it should be neutral. Making things is human instinct or the meme, so we cannot suppress such impulse.

For example, it seems that the activity level of the prefrontal cortex goes down very sharply when people are playing games. However, what is frightening is that such data goes out of our control and leads to a hasty conclusion such as "Playing games degrades people's intellect," or "If the frontal cortex does not work, it is a bad thing." That may or may not be relevant, which should be verified by science. Science should prepare data while engineering should make things. The result should be evaluated by other people. It does not mean that scientists are abandoning their responsibilities, but these issues must be reviewed by everyone in society.

Sakakihara: People studying "game brain" look at brain activities by recording brainwaves or using optical topography. In a sense they are using natural science, which seems to be able to identify anything. Optical topography indicates the blood stream of the brain. When the blood stream increases, that part is shown as red. If we look at the brain of a person playing a game, the frontal part of the brain is all white, indicating that the frontal lobe is not being used. Therefore we tend to conclude that games are bad because the frontal lobe, the most important part of a human body, is not being used. In order to find out whether games are really bad or not, we need to look at children's behaviors, social adaptation from pedagogical and psychiatric viewpoints. But there seems to be a tendency among scientists to move forward based on the reductive causal relationship. I think that there is still a big gap between human behaviors and what actually happens in their brains.

When I was talking about these games, an old woman said, "When I was small, I was told that I would be a bookworm and spoiled if I always read books. There was a time when reading books was criticized." New things are welcomed in the beginning and criticized later. The screening process takes place this way, and some games will be eliminated in the society. From the viewpoint of child science, children are the most susceptible to new things like computers. Young people learn very fast. Children are the first to accept something new, so if there is a bad meme, they may be exposed to that in the first place. We need to look at this aspect from the viewpoint of child science.



Sakura: Professor Hiraki said that science and technology should be neutral and that we should think about values separately. I understand that has been the case so far. But now to create a base for normative values, we need to integrate science, technology as they are today with certain aspects of human biology.

In the past, science was used to discuss the issue of, for example, eugenics. In many cases, that did not generate good results. The idea is that it is better not to include scientific discussions. However, as we heard from other panelists, something groundless is accepted as a scientific result, while strange theories may prevail as science before careful and decent studies are made. This is a very sensitive issue. I hope a methodology or structure can link the scientific or technological outcome to their values.

Miyashita: Thank you very much. Professor Asao, development or education tends to be somewhat value-oriented. In your studies how do you balance scientific viewpoints and social values?

Asao: I do feel that developmental psychology is a value-oriented study. The important thing is child rearing. There is a process in which mothers and other caregivers bring up their children and these children become parents. I think that keeping this cyclical process is the foundation of every field of study. This is a major premise for survival of mankind. In order to sustain such child rearing, or parent rearing, we need a total design of various fields of study such as developmental psychology to address how we can utilize engineering knowledge and state-of-the-art science. We also need to enhance intellect to develop science continuously. We want to see intelligence to make things with a sense of wonder and exploration. For this purpose we must actively introduce machinery and information equipment to enhance such sensitivity. Comprehensive design awareness is necessary to make such IT equipment and machinery and introduce them into human world. Otherwise some IT equipment and machinery may possibly damage children's sensitivity for a sense of wonder and their exploratory mindset.

There seems to be many dangers. For example, child nursing robot that can talk to a crying baby or talk on a regular basis on behalf of the mother is certainly attractive. Considering the cycle of human reproduction, however, parents need to be able to interact with their babies. We can make robots that can caress peevish or crying babies on our behalf, but we should not blindly use them without total planning or a design to ensure these babies will become grown-ups who can bring up their children. Robots are acceptable anywhere so far as it encourages children's curiosity. However, there may not be enough awareness of robotic development to realize both "reproduction of child rearing" and "a sense of wonder for nature."

Hiraki: Professor Asao has just talked about a baby-caressing robot. But I think that it is pretty difficult to make such a robot. Babies are not so simple.

Asao: The human being is great, but we may not need something that is so advanced from the engineering viewpoint as far as babies are concerned. A three-month-old baby becomes peevish when his diaper gets wet. If there is a caressing robot that says, "Here is your mummy. It'll be all right," then the baby will laugh. We can use the robot as an aid, although we should not depend on it too much.

Miyashita: Professor Asada from Osaka University, can we ask for your comments?

Asada: As one of the few people with engineering and robotics background, I have been enjoying your discussions very much. Engineering people have been suffering from the gap between human reality and what they are trying to make. We find it enjoyable and romantic. Artificial things may have a negative influence, but children have an instinctive interest in learning and making something. I may be singing my own praises, but robot-making in early childhood may have a good influence.
For example, Mr. Doi of Sony, who is a member of the AIBO development team, says that people making robots are intrigued by even a flying mosquito because of its flying mechanism. In this process, we realize the wonder of human beings and begin to understand the link between artificial and natural things. The process raises our interest in nature.

When humans make artificial things in early childhood, it stimulates the imagination and interest in nature. Robot-making in groups is also said to foster sociability. When one of the group members is absent, others have to make up for it. If someone is missing, that inconveniences others. Children in the old days used to learn mechanical engineering, physics and social sciences while playing after school. Nowadays they go to cram schools and do not have such opportunities. Therefore this kind of experience may be a good opportunity to learn social skills.

Science and engineering are not two separate things; in fact they had the same origin. They are now more specialized and classified for convenience. Even in the department of engineering, mechanics and electricity conflict each other. If there is a conflict, they cannot make a robot. The problem with TV games and cellular phones is that people use only their thumbs. If there is an interactive total body movement, for instance, brain activity might change accordingly. Therefore, we should use our wisdom to think about how we can utilize them rather than looking at them only superficially. The point is not whether it is artificial or natural, but how we should utilize and evolve it into a social educational system. The issue should involve not only engineers but also others. There have to be places or opportunities to integrate humanities and science, which is the theme of today's symposium, to think about what we should make. This will raise social recognition and be a good opportunity for engineering people to think about their benefits. I would like to propose that we should make such a place, a town of robots where everyone can play together, both children and adults. We should think about how to get along with artificial things in the town of future. These are our plans.

Miyashita: Thank you very much. Professor Sakakihara, could you make additional comments?

Sakakihara: I find Professor Asada's comments very interesting. Recently some pediatricians are concerned that children will engage in troublemaking behavior if they continue to play in a virtual game world like Tamagocchi that you can easily revive a life with a reset button. As Professor Hiraki said, however, babies are not so stupid. They have a wonderful sensitivity. Therefore we have to start with the question whether children can or cannot understand something virtual. Adults tend to think that children may not understand what adults know, but this is not true.

Asao: Do children think that virtual reality or something false like artificial life is really alive? This is a very difficult judgment. For instance, there is a robot that moves by turning a screw. Some four- or five-year old children say that it is "alive." It is not clear, however, whether these children are using the term "alive" properly, so this is a difficult judgment. Back to the previous discussion, I can understand that engineering deepen their understanding of the human from the robot-making process or that they are intrigued by a flying mosquito. I do not disagree with this. The problem is the optimistic idea that children will gain a sense of respect for life just like engineers when they are given a robot. I want children to be struck with the difference between a mosquito and a robot. The biggest problem of children nowadays is that they are not equipped to be moved by a flying mosquito. Now there are very few children who touch insects. This is mainly because their mothers hate them. These children don't play with the soil, either. Again this is because their mothers don't like it.

I had a more surprising experience. A science teacher was keeping newts and gave one of them to his students because he asked for one. Then a complaint came from his mother. She didn't want to have a creature not explained in the textbooks. She wanted to know what she should do with their Japanese killifish that do not lay eggs. Children these days have very little exposure to insects or other forms of life. Even though they may keep pets, they have to be spayed. Children do not have the exciting opportunity of seeing their pet dog give birth to puppies. It would be great if children had a real emotional experience and wanted to study engineering because they want to make good things themselves. That is why visual tools and equipment that can help children's understanding should be actively introduced. Otherwise it will be very difficult to convince them to make something.

Miyashita: Thank you very much. Professor Asao has raised very important issues regarding the enhancing of children's social skills in their relationship with nature or living creatures, or interpersonal relationships. Now I would like to ask for comments from Professor Sakakihara, who is involved with children, from the viewpoint of child science.


Takashi Asao, Professor, Nara Women's College

Yoichi Sakakihara, M.D., Medical Director, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Tokyo

Osamu Sakura, Associate Professor, Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, the University of Tokyo

Kazuo Hiraki, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo

Takahiro Miyashita, Professor, Shirayuri Women's College
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