Post by Jaya Kailley
This blog post summarizes results from the peer-reviewed journal article “Older adult perspectives on emotion and stigma in social robots” published in Frontiers in Psychiatry (2023).
Social robots: Tools to support the quality of life of older adults
Canada’s older adult population is rapidly growing (1), and tools such as social robots may be able to support the health and quality of life of older adults. Social robots are devices that can provide support to users through interaction. They can be used for health monitoring, reminders, and cognitive training activities (2), and they have been shown to decrease behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, improve mood, decrease loneliness, decrease blood pressure, and support pain management (3–6).
End-user driven approaches to improve social robot adoption
Despite their benefits, social robots are not readily adopted by older adults. Issues raised in the literature include a lack of emotional alignment between end-users and devices (7,8) and the perception of stigma around social robot use (3,9). To address these barriers and improve the design of future devices, it is important to better understand user preferences for social robots, rather than relying only on expert opinion (10).
Older adult perspectives on social robot applications, emotion and stigma
The Neuroscience, Engagement, and Smart Tech (NEST) lab at Neuroethics Canada explored the topics of emotion and stigma in social robots from the perspectives of older adults, people living with dementia, and care partners. This project was co-designed with a Lived Experience Expert Group (LEEG, or “League”). We conducted online workshops where participants had an opportunity to share their thoughts on what a social robot should be able to do, what kind of emotional range it should be capable of displaying, how much emotion it should display, and considerations around using a social robot in various public contexts (Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Results from the SOCRATES workshops.
Participants expressed that they would want a social robot to interact with them and provide companionship. They also suggested that a robot could be a medium to connect with others; for example, a robot could facilitate electronic communication between two people.
Emotional display was something that most participants desired in a social robot, but there were different preferences for how much emotion a robot should display. Participants mentioned that a social robot displaying negative emotions could be stressful for the user, but a social robot displaying only positive emotions could appear artificial. One participant suggested that to get around this issue, a social robot could have a dial to set the level of interactivity that the user desired. Ideas for displays of emotions raised included facial expressions, body movements, or noises. Participants also explained how having a robot that aligned its emotions with the user could facilitate connection between the robot and user.
Participants also discussed considerations around using a robot in front of other people. Some participants voiced concern about attracting negative attention from an audience and feeling judged, while others suggested that a social robot could help to educate and raise awareness about dementia and how technologies can provide support to older adults.
Looking to the future
One key part of the neuroethics field today is co-created research (11), which involves engaging end-users in the creation of interventions meant to support their wellbeing. The results from this study highlight that social robots should have advanced interactive abilities and emotional capabilities to ensure that users can feel connected to these devices. Since older adults have different preferences for emotional range, customizability should be prioritized in the design of future devices. The results for considerations around using a robot in public suggest that social robot marketing may have a significant impact on the way assistive technologies are perceived in the future. Highlighting these devices as support and using them to educate the public about dementia may reduce the stigma around these technologies. These key findings should be incorporated into the design and implementation of future social robots to improve social robot adoption among older adults.
1. Infographic: Canada’s seniors population outlook: Uncharted territory | CIHI [Internet]. [cited 2022 Jun 16]. Available from: https://www.cihi.ca/en/infographic-canadas-seniors-population-outlook-uncharted-territory
2. Getson C, Nejat G. Socially assistive robots helping older adults through the pandemic and life after COVID-19. Robotics. 2021 Sep;10(3):106.
3. Hung L, Liu C, Woldum E, Au-Yeung A, Berndt A, Wallsworth C, et al. The benefits of and barriers to using a social robot PARO in care settings: A scoping review. BMC Geriatr. 2019 Aug 23;19(1):232.
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5. Robinson H, MacDonald B, Broadbent E. Physiological effects of a companion robot on blood pressure of older people in residential care facility: A pilot study. Australasian Journal on Ageing. 2015;34(1):27–32.
6. Latikka R, Rubio-Hernández R, Lohan ES, Rantala J, Nieto Fernández F, Laitinen A, et al. Older adults’ loneliness, social isolation, and physical information and communication technology in the era of ambient assisted living: A systematic literature review. J Med Internet Res. 2021 Dec 30;23(12):e28022.
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8. Pu L, Moyle W, Jones C, Todorovic M. The effectiveness of social robots for older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. The Gerontologist. 2019 Jan 9;59(1):e37–51.
9. Koh WQ, Felding SA, Budak KB, Toomey E, Casey D. Barriers and facilitators to the implementation of social robots for older adults and people with dementia: a scoping review. BMC Geriatr. 2021 Jun 9;21:351.
10. Bradwell HL, Edwards KJ, Winnington R, Thill S, Jones RB. Companion robots for older people: importance of user-centred design demonstrated through observations and focus groups comparing preferences of older people and roboticists in South West England. BMJ Open. 2019 Sep 1;9(9):e032468.
11. Illes J. Reflecting on the Past and Future of Neuroethics: The Brain on a Pedestal. AJOB Neuroscience. 2023 Mar 31;1–4.
Jaya Kailley is a directed studies student under the supervision of Dr. Julie Robillard in the NEST Lab, and she is pursuing an Integrated Sciences degree in Behavioural Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of British Columbia. She currently supports research projects that aim to include end-users in the process of social robot development. Outside of work, Jaya enjoys playing the piano, drawing, and reading fiction novels.