Senior citizens would use a robot helper but fear robot masters

Posted Feb 1, 2016 by Karen Graham
According to new research, senior citizens would probably accept robots as helpers or entertainment providers, but when it comes to giving up control to the machines, it raises the question of how much autonomy we should allow robots to have over us.
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Softbank's "Pepper" humanoid robots 'rest' before the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, on December 2, 2015
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Researchers from Penn State conducted a study on the use of robot helpers by senior citizens that consisted of interviewing 45 adults between the ages of 65 and 95 at a Senior Citizens Center in Pennsylvania.
Based on their findings, reports Science News Online, the researchers found that preconceived notions and how the media perceives robots plays a role in how seniors form mental models of the machines, specifically in both positive and negative notions. These notions shape a senior's comfort level to a great degree.
S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University says, "When interfaces are designed to be almost human-like in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism, and other negative emotions."
But, he points out that even with all the negative connotations associated with autonomous robots, there are still several areas where a senior would still accept help from a robot. Those three areas in life where robots would be useful included: physical, informational and interactional situations.
According to Sundar, most seniors agreed they would be comfortable accepting help from a robot if it were acting as a helper or butler. Older citizens indicated they could see the usefulness of a robot providing information, or even entertainment, reports
However, seniors drew the line at autonomous robots. Autonomous robots are designed to make their own decisions, going so far as to not wait for a senior's command before engaging in a particular task. This was seen by seniors as not having any control of a situation, and confrontational.
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"It is clear senior citizens want robots to play passive and non-confrontational roles," said Sundar. "Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots."
In discussing how the media plays into our conceived notions of robots, Sundar says, "The bottom line is that these portrayals shape their view of robots even though most people have never used a robot." He adds, "A lot depends on the mental models that people have about robots and these can include how robots are portrayed by mainstream media."
The loss of control over one's life is a big worry for seniors today. It is sometimes a re-learning experience, even if it involves needing help to bathe or help in some of the other things most of us take for granted. That is why finding out how senior citizens would respond to robots was so important in this study.
The population in the U.S. is aging, and as our population grows older, we will have to depend more on computers and robots to supplement human workers in providing medical treatment and caregiving. According to the researchers, about 8,000 Americans turn 65 every single day, the usual age for retirement.
"Even with concerns about control, we consistently heard that robots could be very useful to seniors," said Justin Walden, a former doctoral student in mass communications, Penn State, and currently an assistant professor of communications, North Dakota State University, who worked with Sundar.
Walden went on to say that as we age, our physical and interaction needs change, and he foresees the need for robots governed by voice-command and acting in subservient roles playing a significant part in senior's lives. However, as Sundar points out in discussing 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?"
This study, "Mental models of robots among senior citizens: An interview study of interaction expectations and design implications," was published in the journal Interaction Studies.