Humanoid robots don’t provoke fear in older people, finds German study

The more humanoid robots are, the more older people like them. Credit: Anne Guenther/FSU Jena

Although robots are quickly becoming ubiquitous in farms, factories, warehouses, hospitals, and even city streets, some developers of service robotics have assumed that older adults would be hostile to new technologies, particularly humanoid robots.

However, a study by psychologists at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, suggests that older people are far less anxious and hostile regarding such robots than previously thought.

Humanoid robot designs help interaction

During a series of experiments, the results of which have now been published in the specialist journal Computers in Human Behavior, the Jena researchers showed videos of various robots to 30 participants aged around 70 and 30 others aged around 20. The participants were asked to evaluate whether they found the robot friendly or threatening and whether they could imagine it as a daily companion.

“In the tests, the older participants made a clearly positive assessment of the machines – and were even more open-minded towards them than the younger comparison group,” said Prof. Stefan Schweinberger of the University of Jena. “In the older participants, we were unable to confirm a skepticism towards robots that is frequently assumed in science.”

Although it was a relatively small series of tests, two further, yet unpublished, studies carried out in Jena arrived at the same result. The decisive factor had been how realistic the humanoid robots were — for example, whether they had facial expressions, arms, and legs. The new findings could help in designing service robots.

People with autism are more in tune with machines

In their experiments, Schweinberger and his team also analyzed to what extent the participants exhibited autistic personality traits.

“Although none of the participants in the study had a diagnosis of autism, the autism spectrum is now seen as a continuum that includes all people, to a greater or lesser extent,” he explained. “More pronounced autistic personality traits on an appropriate scale may give us further clues as to how open people are to machines.”

Previous studies have shown that people with more pronounced autistic traits are more open to robots. Contact between them is even used as a therapeutic approach.

“People with autism often have handicaps in the area of social communication. For example, they cannot interpret facial expressions correctly. It is important for them that their environment is predictable,” said Schweinberger. “With its automated communication — more predictable when compared with a human partner — a robot could help with this.”

Due to its small number of participants, the Jena study did not produce any conclusive figures. However, slight tendencies suggest that people with a greater predisposition to autism are more in tune with machines. Such personality traits are stronger in older people in particular, which might favor their openness toward humanoid robots.

Further research needs to be carried out in this field so that we can better understand the increasingly relevant relationship between human and machine, the scientists said.

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