Older adults worry ‘robot butlers’ will take over

"Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots," says S. Shyam Sundar. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Interviews with older adults suggest they would be accepting of robots that help with household chores or act as entertainers, but are worried about giving the machines too much control.

The findings from the small study suggest mental models formed by senior citizens—specifically negative and positive notions about robots—shape their comfort level with the machines.

“When interfaces are designed to be almost human-like in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism, and other negative emotions,” says S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications at Penn State. “But, with those considerations in mind, there are actually several areas where older people would accept robot help.”

The participants—between ages 65 and 95 years old—said they saw robots as useful in three aspects of their lives: physical, informational, and interactional. They felt most comfortable with those that act as helpers and butlers. Older adults also seemed more likely to accept robots that provide them information and entertainment.

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But they may be less likely to use robots that are designed to be more autonomous. An autonomous robot can make its own decisions and may not need to wait for a senior’s commands to engage in a task.

“It is clear senior citizens want robots to play passive and non-confrontational roles,” Sundar says. “Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots.”

These attitudes on control may reflect how the media influences perceptions of robots, researchers say.

“A lot depends on the mental models that people have about robots and these can include how robots are portrayed by mainstream media,” Sundar says. “The bottom line is that these portrayals shape their view of robots even though most people have never used a robot.”

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Finding out how older adults respond to robots is important for American seniors because as the country’s population grows older, computers and robots may be needed to supplement human workers in providing medical treatments and caregiving. About 8,000 Americans turn 65 years old—the typical retirement age for workers—each day.

“Even with concerns about control, we consistently heard that robots could be very useful to seniors,” says Justin Walden, a former doctoral student in mass communications who worked with Sundar  and is now assistant professor of communications at North Dakota State University. “As we age, our physical and interactional needs change. Robots in that human-command and robot-servient role have the potential to help seniors fill several of those needs.”

As artificial intelligence and robotics become more accepted, the study might help better explore how robots and computers are best used in society, Sundar says.

“We also wanted to know, from a social-scientific standpoint, to what extent are older adults comfortable with robots and what they see as the role of robots. “One of those classic debates in a number of disciplines, ranging from philosophy to cognitive science, is where should robots be in our culture?”

The findings appear in the journal Interaction Studies.

Source: Penn State