Robotic Assistats for the Elderly - Interview With Cory-Ann Smarr
November 14, 2012

RedOrbit Exclusive Interview: Cory-Ann Smarr, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Human Factors and Aging Laboratory

Jedidiah Becker for — Your Universe Online

Throughout the last few decades, advances in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence have plucked high-tech robots from the reverie of science fiction and placed them squarely in the real world. As technology has progressed, robots have been entrusted with an ever-expanding set of job responsibilities, including carrying soldiers into and out of battle zones, assembling automobiles and even fighting fires. As these marvels of modern technology grow increasingly sophisticated, their role in our daily lives seems certain to grow increasingly intimate as well.

Now, researchers at Georgia Tech's Human Factors and Aging Laboratory have begun looking into the prospect of robotic assistants for the elderly. But before engineers can get to work designing the perfect robotic caregiver, this team set out to answer a question that is fundamentally human: Would aging adults even be comfortable with the idea of receiving assistance from non-human helpers?

Cory-Ann Smarr, a member of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory and a PhD candidate in Engineering Psychology, recently talked with redOrbit about her team's research into the psychology of robotic assistance.

Read the original article “How Do Older People Feel About Having A Robot Assistant In The Home” first.

RO: For many of our readers, I suspect that this is the first time that they have even heard of robot assistants for the elderly. Before we dive into the details of your study, could you give us some background information on this topic? Is this something that is already being tried out, or is it still in the conceptual stage at this point?

Smarr: Much of the work on robots assisting older adults is currently in the research stage. However, we believe this area of research has potential to help the increasing proportion of older adults in the United States as well as in many other countries. Older adults prefer to maintain their independence, but age-related changes in cognition, perception and mobility may challenge this preference by making daily tasks more difficult to perform. Robots have the potential to support older adults with many of the challenges they encounter with aging. However, robot assistance is only useful if older adults are willing to use, or accept it. Our study was one step toward designing and introducing robots acceptable to older adults by first ascertaining their preferences.

RO: What are some of the potential advantages that robotic assistants for the elderly might have over their traditional flesh-and-blood counterparts?

Smarr: We did ask the older adults about whether they would prefer a robot or a human to assist them with certain tasks. They reported preferring assistance from a robot over a human for certain tasks. These included chores (e.g., housekeeping, laundry), health tasks (e.g., reminder to take medication) or enrichment activities (e.g., learning new information or skills, participating in hobbies). However, there were tasks for which the older adults preferred human assistance over robot assistance. These tasks were more personal in nature (e.g., eating, dressing, bathing, grooming) or more social (e.g., calling family or friends).

RO: Your study mentioned that most of the older adults that you questioned were enthusiastic about having robots help them out with 'dirty jobs' like laundry, taking out the trash and doing dishes. However, when it came to more personal tasks like helping them get dressed or bathe, they tended to be more reluctant. From a psychological perspective, why might this be?

Smarr: More research is needed to understand why the older adults preferred robot assistance for some tasks and human assistance for other tasks — their opinions about tasks may have been influenced by the specific robot we showed them. We cannot assume that the older adults would never want a robot to help with more personal or social tasks. Their views may have been limited for several reasons. For example, perhaps the older adults may be more open to robot assistance if they saw a robot demonstrate the task in person or if they currently needed assistance with that task. We are currently investigating why older adults prefer robot assistance with some tasks over others and how preferences may interact with the robot´s appearance.

RO: In addition to being uncomfortable with having robots perform these highly personal tasks, your study also noted that those surveyed tended to be uneasy with having robots involved in decision-making tasks, such as helping them determine which medications they needed to take. Could it be the case that many older adults and elderly people find it challenging to imagine robots performing functions outside the roles of the traditional technology with which they are more familiar? In other words, is it perhaps difficult for some of them to view robots as something more than hi-tech washing machines and alarm clocks?

Smarr: We agree that older adults may be limited in their views about the potential for robot assistance from their own experience. We were interested in assessing their attitudes and perceptions and this is valuable information that provided insights into their openness for robot assistance as well as what tasks they would want robot assistance with in the home. If we are going to introduce a robot that has more intelligence, it will be important to be able to demonstrate the value and reliability of these tasks to the older adults.

RO: Do you expect the preferences and attitudes toward robots in roles like these to change in the coming years as our relationship to technology continues to evolve, or do you think that there are perhaps deep-seated psychological reasons why a person of any age or generation wouldn't want a robot bathing them or dispensing their morning cocktail of heart medications?

Smarr: I suspect that people's preferences and attitudes toward robots are influenced by their knowledge of robots and other technologies. Thus in the future, people's attitudes may change as robots become more prevalent in society. Older adults do tend to be “late adopters” of new technologies and therefore their attitudes may change more slowly.

RO: What do you see as the practical implications of your study for the future of robotic assistance for the elderly?

Smarr: Robots have the potential to support older adults with many challenges they encounter with aging. However, robot assistance is only useful if older adults are willing to use, or accept it. Our results indicate that the older adults were generally open to robot assistance in the home, but they preferred it for some daily living tasks (e.g., chores, health tasks, some enrichment activities) and not others (e.g., more personal or social tasks). Their preferences for assistance could help inform the design and introduction of robots that are more likely to be acceptable to them. In addition, understanding what tasks they are more reticent about robots helping with suggests that we will have to carefully and perhaps gradually introduce robots to perform such tasks.

RO: Can we realistically expect to see this kind of technology making its way into the homes of the elderly in the coming years, or is it still too early to say whether it will catch on or even be economically feasible?

Smarr: The older adults in our study were optimistic about robots assisting with maintaining their independence. However, assistive robots are still in the development stage so it is difficult to tell when they will be commercially available for the home. My guess is that robots will be prevalent in residential facilities in the near future and then more gradually become common in individual homes.

RO: Cory-Ann, thanks very much for taking the time have a chat with us. On behalf of the redOrbit team and our readership, we wish you the best of luck on your continued research and look forward to reading about your future work.


Cory-Ann Smarr is currently completing requirements for a PhD in Engineering Psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a member of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory. She completed her B.S. in psychology at West Virginia University in 2007 and her M.S. in psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2011. Her main research interests include aging, human-robot interaction, assistive robotics and robot acceptance. Specifically, she is interested in what facilitates and hinders acceptance of assistive robots as well as how robots may help older adults with maintaining their independence at home.