PhotoSenior citizens have seen plenty of science fiction movies over the years, so it might not be surprising they are just a little leery of inviting a robot into their home to help with household chores.

After all, Hal, the computer/robot in "2001, A Space Odyssey," made an indelible impression. Hal might have blindsided Dave, the astronaut, but we're all the wiser now. And those “mental models” seniors have formed over the years very much shape their comfort level with machines, researchers say.

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

Cheap help

With a large population of aging Americans, robots are seen as a cost-effective way to provide older people with in-home support. But Sundar says the research makes clear that seniors may accept mechanical helpers in some roles more than others.

In a study, seniors felt most comfortable with robots as helpers and butlers, when they were following the user's instructions. What appears to make them uncomfortable, however, is when robots are autonomous. They don't want a robot that can make its own decisions and may not need to wait for a senior's commands to engage in a task.

"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."

Filling a need

Like it or not, robots are likely to take on a greater care-giving role in the future. Some 8,000 Americans turn 65 years old -- the typical retirement age for workers -- each day, according to the researchers. Even if they seem a little creepy, these robots might prove to be very useful.

The concept of robot caregivers got an early start in Japan, which has a large aging population. Last March the Riken Institiute and Sumitomo Riko company highlighted efforts to develop a new robot nurse with a human-like touch. It doesn't talk but it does listen. And it's powerful enough to carry about 176 pounds, meaning it could help a patient move from a bed to a wheelchair.

"We really hope that this robot will lead to advances in nursing care, relieving the burden on care-givers today,” Toshiharu Mukai, leader of the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team, said in a release.

“We intend to continue with research toward more practical robots capable of providing powerful yet gentle care to elderly people."

Just as long as it doesn't get any ideas about world domination.

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