Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Those in need welcome robot helpers, just not in the bathroom

Georgia Institute of Technology

An elderly couple sits at a table with their robot assistant.

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Personal robotics companies are making a bet that real-world C-3P0-like machines will be of great help to the world's aging population who need assistance with routine household tasks. The question is: will they embrace the technology?

Yes, as long as the robots do chores such as wash dishes, do laundry, and take out the trash, according to a new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology. But when it comes to more personal tasks such as bathing, getting dressed and eating, there's a strong preference for human help.

Human assistance is also preferred for social activities such as calling family and friends and entertaining guests.

The survey included 29 adults aged 65 to 93 who were showed a video of a robot's capabilities and then interviewed about their willingness for assistance with 48 household chores. All participants were healthy and independent at the time and nearly 75 percent said they used gadgets such as cell phones.

"There are many misconceptions about older adults having negative attitudes toward robots," Cory Ann-Marr, who will present the results at the Human Factors Ergonomics Society this week, said in a news release.

That perception was exploited earlier this year in a political attack ad against Jeffrey Brandes, who is in a battle for state Senate seat in Florida and sponsored a bill while in the Florida House of Representatives that would allow the "operation of autonomous motor vehicles on public roads" in Florida.

The ad featured an elderly woman's voice questioning whether driverless car technology is "really a priority for our state" and includes a sound clip from Brandes saying that he had to "convince the senate it wasn't witchcraft."

Georgia Tech's survey suggests there's nuance to when a robot's help is wanted. It appears to center of the level of physical or intellectual intimacy. For example, the study participants would accept a robot reminder to take their medicine, but want a human to help them decide which pill to take.

In other words, they are happy for the robot to be a sophisticated calendar, but there's a lack of trust that the artificial intelligence is capable of choosing the correct medication.

Likewise, these adults are wary of trusting a robot with physically intimate tasks such as taking a bath and getting dressed.

"The people we interviewed were very enthusiastic and optimistic about robots in their daily lives," Marr said. "They were also very particular in their preferences, something that can assist researchers as they determine what to design and introduce in the home."

Presumably, they won't be in the market for robots that offer "mind-blowing sex."

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

Video: Robots march home from war


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