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Senior citizens wary of giving control to robots: study

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

Senior citizens would likely accept robots as helpers and entertainment providers, but may not be willing to give up too much control to the machines, scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have found.

Based on a study of senior citizens, the researchers said that mental models formed by seniors - 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, scepticism and other negative emotions," said S Shyam Sundar, professor at Pennsylvania State University.

"But, with those considerations in mind, there are actually several areas where older people would accept robot help," Sundar said.

The participants in the study indicated they saw robots as useful in three aspects of their lives - physical, informational and interactional. They felt most comfortable with robots as helpers and butlers, according to Sundar.

Older adults also seemed more likely to accept robots that provide them information and entertainment, according to the researchers.

However, 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.

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

"A lot depends on the mental models that people have about robots and these can include how robots are portrayed by mainstream media," said Sundar.

"The bottom line is that these portrayals shape their view of robots even though most people have never used a robot," he said.

"Even with concerns about control, we consistently heard that robots could be very useful to seniors," said Justin Walden, a former doctoral student at Penn State.

"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," said Walden who is currently at North Dakota State University.

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

"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," said Sundar.

For the study, the researchers interviewed 45 older adults - between ages 65 and 95 years old - at a senior citizens' centre in Pennsylvania.

The study was published in the journal Interaction Studies.

First Published: Tue, February 02 2016. 16:57 IST