Research News

The Implications of Making Care-giving Robots Lifelike

Robots designed to help the elderly may be given the ability to interact in human-like ways -– but what are the implications of doing this?

The need for eldercare is rising at the same time that costs are also rising for healthcare and labor. In response, robot designers are developing technologies to help care for the elderly. For example, a robot could be programmed to remind an elderly person to take medications at certain times.

A human-like or pet-like robot may provide nurture and companionship as well as basic care if it is designed with interactive features that make it seem lifelike.

But what are the implications of giving robots some lifelike features? Robots are not, after all, sentient beings and may disappoint persons who come to expect pet or human behavior. Or a robot that is with an elderly person constantly may come to mean more to that person than other human beings.

Sherry Turkle at MIT examined how elderly people interacted with three robotic companions: Furby, a whimsical creature animated toy, AIBO, a dog-like robot; and My Real Baby Doll, a baby-like interactive doll.

The 40 participants in the study expressed a range of styles of interaction with the artifacts:

  • Participants interacted with the object, but treated it as an artifact while exploring its many properties.

  • Participants felt both a strong reaction and a repulsion to bonding with the relational object. Seniors with this type of approach simultaneously treated the object as if it were animated and "alive," yet were unable to accept their emotional involvement with a robotic artifact.

  • Participants treated the robotic dolls and pets as sentient and conscious beings, and were highly emotionally invested in their interactions.
The researchers also found that relational objects bring to the surface meaningful relationships that elderly people had in their lives. For example, they may re-enact meaningful relationships they had with babies with the baby-like robots.

Dr. Turkle comments, "The interviews and observations of this project have made it clear that technologies are never 'just tools.' They are evocative objects. They cause us to see ourselves and our world differently."