Menus Subscribe Search

Our Machine Overlords

ROBOT.jpg

(Photo: jdhancock/Flickr)

The Elderly Fear Their Future Robot Friends Will Corrupt Children

• May 05, 2014 • 9:56 AM

(Photo: jdhancock/Flickr)

Senior citizens’ hesitance about using caretaking robots comes from a fear that their grandchildren will become emotionally dependent on the machines.

If all goes according to plan, grandparents will soon be lawn bowling with robots.

The elder care industry has recently struggled to keep pace with the swelling numbers of retiring Boomers, and the problem is expected to reach crisis levels within the coming years. With hopes of averting a disaster, techno-futurists are at work designing the best robotic caretakers possible. The machines have already been introduced on a wider scale in Japan, where the government has funneled billions of yen into the production of custodial robots capable of leading older folks around elderly facilities, “assisting with their toilet needs,” and locating the bold geriatrics who decide to walk off the premises.

But there appears to be at least one major blind spot in the sci-fi master plan. Senior citizens in the United States are surprisingly not overly concerned about the effects the robots will have on themselves, according to the results of a recent survey of 640 retirees above the age of 60 (average age was 68) published as part of the proceedings of the Association for Computer Machinery’s CHI conference. They are instead worried about how the machines might affect younger generations, like their children and grandchildren.

People frequently subscribe to the notion that they will not suffer from the effects of a certain form of media or technology but are certain that it will have a negative effect on others. This phenomenon is known as the “third-person effect.” “The greatest negative effects are predicted to occur among imagined audiences that are socially distant from the individual’s own reference group,” the Pennsylvania State University media researchers explain in their paper. “For the population of interest in this study, namely senior citizens, the obvious ‘other’ group is younger people.”

“Today’s youngsters are seen by older adults as hapless victims of new technologies, inexorably addicted to their gadgets and unable to carry out normal social interactions.”

Though the older respondents believed they would be invincible in the face of the robot’s deleterious charms, they believe younger people would suffer at the hands of the bots. This belief actually might make the technology a less appealing tool on the whole. According to research on other third-person effects, the feeling usually results in avoidance of the material in question. This could obviously have significant implications for the impending roll-out of robot elder care.

The observed third-person effect actually predicted the participants’ level of interest in using “companion robots,” the machines that are meant for socialization rather than chores or other assistant work. Specifically, they feared that these type of robots would “foster emotional and physical dependence among younger users.”

Older adults often have similar protective opinions about porn, hip-hop music, video games, and that new-fangled i-gadget-thingamajig. “Today’s youngsters are seen by older adults as hapless victims of new technologies, inexorably addicted to their gadgets and unable to carry out normal social interactions,” the researchers write. So, robots were a natural next target.

But the media researchers believe specific design fixes can be made to “companion robots” to overcome the notion that the machines will take over their children’s lives. In their paper, they suggest arming the robots with a sort of grandparental control mechanism, which would allow them to limit the amount of time the robot spent with their kids or grandchildren.

“Bottomline is that senior citizens ought to feel like that this robot will not be attractive to youngsters,” Shyam Sundar, co-director of Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory and an author of the study, says in an email to Pacific Standard. “The robots could look like or have dialogue scripts and other functions that are attractive to seniors but not to young people. A middle-aged robot, for example!”

Though Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Jim Osborn has never heard of these concerns, he says that he can certainly imagine a kid annoying his grandmother with incessant requests to play with a robot. Besides just switching it off—which he maintains may not be such a bad idea— “the more elegant solution of tuning the robot’s interactions to each individual it encounters” might not be too far off from reality, he writes in an email.

He points to a therapeutic children’s robot called Romibo, which was developed at Carnegie Mellon and is now being launched in the private sector. “It has two modes: one for older adults and one for young people,” says Osborn, who directs the university’s Quality of Life Technology Center. “More precisely it has two pallets of motion commands and sound files that it plays (songs, jokes, questions, etc.).” Other pieces of the equation are in place too, he says. “[I]t is not difficult to give a robot the ability to recognize a human face, nor is it difficult to limit ranges of movement, speeds of movement, etc., for safety’s sake.” Here’s Romibo in action:

Amidst all this talk of tailoring robots specifically to different kinds of human interaction, beyond just task performance, it’s hard not to feel as though society is gradually devolving into an atomized, post-apocalyptic landscape where humans are closer to machines than their own species. In some ways, the thought seems to reinforce a haunting encroachment we can already feel. Are we really going to shove our grandma into the lifeless hands of some robot, too?

This thinking is not without its critics. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies the relationship between technology and society, is discomfited by the thought that a human, especially one plagued by decreasing mental faculties, could be convinced they’re having some genuine emotional exchange with a machine. In her studies of Paro, a Japanese baby seal robot designed “to have a calming effect on patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s and in health care facilities,” Turkle was “troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman share stories about her life with the robot,” according to the New York Times.

“I felt like this isn’t amazing; this is sad. We have been reduced to spectators of a conversation that has no meaning,” she told the Times. “Giving old people robots to talk to is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian.”

Osborn tends to agree with Turkle’s stance that these types of robots should not serve as a replacement for human contact. Instead, he says, they can effectively “fill in time gaps.” These could be certain spaces of elderly solitude that were perhaps, until now, never addressed at all. Besides that, there are other, more practical considerations. “Say for instance that I can’t reach my mother by phone, though I’m sure she’s home,” he says. “Did she fall? I could find out via the robot.”

Illusory relationships, Sundar argues, can actually make people quite happy, even if they aren’t, well, real. Take, for example, the affairs people carry on with celebrities or network journalists. In social science parlance, these one-sided interpersonal friendships are called parasocial relationships.

“In [the] 1950s, this was viewed as a psychiatric condition, but over the years, we have come to recognize as normal the human tendency to treat the weather reporter on the evening news or the soap opera character as social acquaintances,” he says in an email. “Robots are more sentient than these media characters and therefore likely to provide [a] greater sense of social presence and companionship.”

That may be true. But at least the weatherman is human.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.