Older Adults Don't Entirely Trust Robots With Kids

Photo: ALIZ-E Project
Kids interact with a Nao robot.

Sigh. Kids these days. Video games, smartphones, and social media are ruining an entire generation. If we weren't unapologetic geeks ourselves, we'd be upset about this, and worried that technology is actively corrupting our youth. But even though we aren't too worried about this issue, here's something we (and anyone who cares about robots) should worry about: according to a study published by researchers at Penn State, adults over age 60 are concerned that the next thing to negatively affect young people is going to be...robots.

The worry that older adults have about kids interacting with robots is the same sort of worry that comes along with things like video games: that they'll have some kind of negative influence, along with possibly creating some level of dependency. Before we get into this any more, we should stress that the Penn State study was not testing whether robots do these things, but simply whether people think they do these things. It's important, however, because user perception influences how robots are being, um, used, so it's a critical consideration, especially for home robots.

Older adults (there were 640 of them in the study, with nearly an even male/female split) reported that while they themselves didn't think that they'd ever be dependent on robots, they were worried that younger people would get negatively dependent on them. And this concern may keep older adults from using robots themselves.

Two different types of robots were considered: assistant robots and companion robots. An assistant robot would be something like a Roomba (a robot that assists with everyday tasks), while a companion robot actively seeks to provide interaction with the user on an emotional level. Understandably, older adults were more worried about companion robots (because of the potential for emotional attachment, presumably), and less worried about assistant robots.

So, this is obviously not great, because it could reduce robot adoption by older people, who might get the most use out of both assistant and companion robots. One potential solution that the researchers suggest is that robot developers should consider adding "parental controls" to robots, allowing their use to be monitored and restricted if necessary.

Sounds like a reasonable idea; in fact, we propose an entirely new robot that exists solely to oversee the use of other robots, along with a second robot that'll make sure that the first robot doesn't encourage too much user dependency.

Now you kids get off the IEEE Spectrum lawn.*

[ Penn State ]

*As far as I am aware, IEEE Spectrum does not, in fact, have a lawn.

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