Study: Elderly See Potential in Robotic Help, But Worry About Robot Autonomy

In an assisted living home in Italy, a robot, pictured here in December 2015, acts as a caregiver or butler for the 20 elderly guests. Robots developed by the Robotics Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna di Pisa are designed and programmed to p... Laura Lezza/Getty Images

If you're a longtime fan of "Saturday Night Live," you may remember the 1995 insurance commercial parody in which celebrity endorser Sam Waterston touts the benefits to the elderly of buying a special policy to protect them against robot attacks: "Robots are everywhere, and they eat old people's medicines for fuel," he solemnly explains.

Flash forward to the present, though, and many experts are looking to robots as a way to help increasingly aging populations in the U.S. and elsewhere with their needs. In Japan, Toyota has developed the Human Support Robot, or HSR, a roughly three-foot-tall rolling machine equipped with a folding arm and "clasping gripper" to pick up objects and bring them to a person. Additionally, the robot is equipped with video cameras and a microphone array, enabling an elderly person in its care to see and communicate with a remote human operator.

And engineers from Germany's Fraunhoffer Institute have invented Care-o-Bot, a service robot that can play music, tell stories or serve as a game board, and even is equipped to call for an ambulance if the human in its care suffers a fall.

"As such machines become more sophisticated, robot helpers could assist people with everyday household chores and with dressing and bathing," a 2014 Technology Review article explains. "Eventually robots may interact far more intelligently as entertainment or company."

"In order to gain acceptance of older adults, it's best to introduce robots as appliances that are clearly subservient to humans."
S. Shyam Sundar, Media Effects Research Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University

But as a study recently published in the journal Interaction Studies points out, the same older people who might benefit from such technology have decidedly mixed feelings about it. While they agree having a mechanical helper could be useful, they're worried that autonomous robots — that is, ones that would take actions on their own, based upon artificial intelligence — might malfunction or, worse yet, start bossing them around. To prevent that from happening, seniors say they would accept having robots around only if they could control the machines' movements and actions themselves.

"The sense we got from our interviews is that [older people] would like to be in driver's seat of the interaction, giving commands, rather than letting robots make decisions for them or on their behalf," says S. Shyam Sundar, a communications professor and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at the Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers, who interviewed 45 adults between the ages of 65 and 95 at a senior citizens' center in Pennsylvania, found that roughly two-thirds of them had mostly positive views about the idea of having a robot companion — as long as they had their fingers on the controls. "I want it to be pleasant and subservient ... and understand that I am the boss," one respondent told them.

Sundar says that the elderly subjects, who hadn't seen any actual robots, tended to imagine them as humanoid machines of the sort seen in science fiction, "such as R2D2 and Wall-E." They liked the idea of having robots to help with physical tasks such as opening jars or cleaning, and assisting them if they needed help getting around the house.

 But they also imagined them as sort of self-propelled giant smartphones that would provide news, send emails and set up Skype calls. One 78-year-old woman thought robots could be helpful in reminding her when to take medication.

Others saw robotic companions as a way to remedy loneliness, if they were equipped with technology that enabled them to speak to their owners. "I wind up talking to myself and the dishwasher," explained one 87-year-old woman, who said she had lived alone for many years. "It would be nice to have something that talks back."

Senior citizens may be open to robotic help, but worry about granting machines too much autonomy.
Alex Green/Getty Images

Similarly, an elderly male subject thought it would be great to have mechanical company when he chose. "If I was not interested in interacting, I would say, 'Go over in the corner and don't bother me, and the robot would not be angry,'" he told the researchers. "But then I could say, 'Okay, wake up!'"

But some of the subjects — perhaps the ones who'd watched the "Terminator" movies a few times too many — had mostly negative ideas of robots. One man, who noted that he'd had trouble with a GPS device guiding him to the wrong destination on a walk, worried about similar robots developing similar malfunctions, and insisted that they would need an override switch.

Sundar says that the "climate of robot fear" means that manufacturers will need to market the technology with care, at least at the start.

"We may see a general reluctance to adopt robots if they come across as autonomous," he says. "In order to gain acceptance of older adults, it's best to introduce robots as appliances that are clearly subservient to humans. Once the older adults get to use these machines and understand their utility in their lives, they'll likely get more comfortable with more advanced robots that can make decisions for them."