Science fiction books have been talking about it for decades. Thanks to robotics, we have now created prosthetic robot-arms, robotic surgical assistants, robotic aids to clean the house while we’re gone, as well as robotic dogs. The logical next step, in a context of aging populations, was to develop robots that can deliver care to older adults or could assist caregivers and health professionals. In recent years, socially assistive robots have been tested.
In 2016, IBM created the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA) prototype based on the Pepper robot developed by SoftBank Robotics in Japan in 2014. MERA can analyze videos of a person's face and measure vital signs like heart and respiratory rates. The robot can also answer basic questions about health, as well as identify when an individual is falling (1; 2).
In recent years, research has focused on the perceptions and experiences of people aged 50 to 95 related to socially assistive robots. A recent systematic review identified 23 studies on the subject. Four major themes emerged from these studies: 1) the roles of socially assistive robots; 2) their interactions with older adults; 3) their appearance; and 4) the ethical dilemmas that they raise.(3)
What does research tell us?
The systematic review reveals that older adults envision socially assistive robots playing certain roles such as performing physically difficult tasks, reminding them to take their medications or go to an appointment, entertaining them and keeping them company. Such robots are also seen as a safety device that can warn relatives or health professionals in the event of a fall or deterioration of health.
The means of communicating with socially assistive robots are greatly influencing the perceptions of older adults. If the robots recognize human voices or allow interacting through touch screens, older adults seem to perceive them more positively. It's even better if the robots can respond spontaneously with a "human" voice. The review also revealed that older adults generally expect the robots to perform perfectly at all times; otherwise they will become doubtful of the robots’ reliability.
Older adults expressed divergent views about the appearance of socially assistive robots. Many liked humanoid-style robots, others preferred if they look like machines, while some favoured a hybrid look. Many older adults perceived humanoid robots as more socially acceptable, while others are uncomfortable with "using" a robot that looks like a human. Among those who preferred humanoid robots, many claimed that they preferred if the robot appeared to have the same “gender”. With hybrid robots, again views were mixed. Some older adults preferred a hybrid that is neither too mechanical nor too human, while others were afraid of such hybrid appearance. Also, interactions with robots were marked by preconceived ideas, such as associating a female appearance with care and a masculine appearance with rational decision-making. Moreover, the studies mentioned the presence of an ‘anthropomorphism’ phenomenon, that is to say that older adults attributed certain human moral, physical or psychological characteristics to socially assistive robots.
With regard to the ethical considerations raised by these studies, older adults expressed concerns that the use of socially assistive robots may lead to a dehumanized society and a decrease in human contact. Also, despite their preference for a robot capable of interacting as a real person, they perceived the relationship with a humanoid robot as counterfeit, a deception. Security emerged as another key consideration, since older adults perceived the surveillance function of socially assistive robots as a threat to their autonomy and privacy. Also, many older adults considered the fact of needing help and using a support robot as negative, a sign of frailty and old age. Participants also asked about the costs of buying and maintaining robots, and whether these resources should instead be invested in human personnel.
Scientific and technical advances in robotics have been enormous. Socially assistive robots are becoming more and more sophisticated. They can perform various daily tasks. They have the ability to listen, talk and monitor the health status of older adults living alone, and to notify caregivers and professionals in case of an emergency. Socially assistive robots thus seem to be helpful companions. The future is here — are we ready for it?