Seniors Have Mixed Feelings About Having Robots in Their Lives

A new study explored the comfort level seniors feel with robots, an important component to understanding how to integrate robots into the care of the elderly as the senior population expands.

The study revealed that seniors are willing to accept robots into their lives for entertainment or for help with an assortment of activities, but they do not want robots to appear too human-like, or for robots to have too much control over their lives.

The researchers say that around 8,000 Americans turn 65 every day, as baby boomers continue to reach retirement age and beyond. Because these numbers are so high, it seems likely that robots and computers will be needed to supplement the work of health care providers and other workers caring for the elderly. If seniors do not feel comfortable or happy about this type of care, problems can arise.

“When interfaces are designed to be almost human-like in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism and other negative emotions,” said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory. “But, with those considerations in mind, there are actually several areas where older people would accept robot help.”

The subjects of the study said they will accept robots in three places in their lives. Helping with their physical needs, providing information, and interactional.

In other words, they like the idea of robots at butlers and helpers, or sources of information and entertainment. Robots with more autonomy, however, frightened the seniors. The idea that a robot could make its own decisions or might not need to wait to be told what to do made the seniors uncomfortable.

“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.”

The study was conducted in a Pennsylvania senior citizens’ center on 45 people between the ages of 65 and 95.