PhotoThe idea of a robot as domestic help is nothing new. Woody Allen employed the concept with hilarious results in 1973's “Sleeper.”

But scientists have always been serious about the idea and are now tweaking robotic models that can help around the house, particularly in households with older adults. The question, however, is would older adults want a robot helper rather than a human?

When researchers at Georgia Tech asked that question, they got a resounding “yes,” with one caveat. For personal tasks and social activities, older adults prefer human help.

Participants in the study generally preferred robotic help over human help for chores such as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry and taking out the trash. But when it came to help getting dressed, eating and bathing, the adults tended to say they would prefer human assistance over robot assistance. They also preferred human help for social activities, such as calling family and friends or entertaining guests.

Misconceptions

“There are many misconceptions about older adults having negative attitudes toward robots,” said Georgia Tech’s Cory-Ann Smarr a School of Psychology graduate teaching assistant. “The people we interviewed were very enthusiastic and optimistic about robots in their daily lives. They were also very particular in their preferences, something that can assist researchers as they determine what to design and introduce in the home.”

Smarr and Psychology Professor Wendy Rogers, the principal investigator on the project, also noticed that preferences varied across tasks, such as medication. For instance, adults said they are willing to use a robot for reminders to take medicine, but they are more comfortable if a person helps them decide which medication to take.

“It seems that older people are less likely to trust a robot with decision-making tasks than with monitoring or physical assistance,” said Rogers. “Researchers should be careful not to generalize preferences when designing assistive robots.”

The older adults in the study were all healthy and independent, and nearly 75 percent said they used everyday technologies such as cell phones and appliances.

Many said they don’t need immediate assistance. The research team is planning future studies for adults who currently need help with everyday tasks.


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