Older Adults Don't Entirely Trust Robots With Kids

Study says adults over 60 are concerned about robots interacting with younger generations

2 min read
Older Adults Don't Entirely Trust Robots With Kids
Kids interact with a Nao robot.
Photo: ALIZ-E Project

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 robotactively seeks to provide interactionwith 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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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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