Are robots good for older people? Just ask them

A research project we are carrying out with Piaggio Fast Forward was featured in The Times last week. Our Director Nic Palmarini investigates the comments section.


If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to read the article to find out what it’s all about. What this article has given us, among other things, is the opportunity to read reactions from people who are not part of our research panels, and to understand from their comments the perception and acceptance of emerging technologies in the lives of older people. I have selected the most up-voted comments, ranging from an outright rejection “Nooooooo!” (Clarence), to an unconditional acceptance “Want” (Benjamin). As is often the case, the most interesting part lies perhaps in the middle, and tells us a lot about how technological innovation for older adults is the subject of a debate that is still unwritten, but full of signals that are important to listen to and understand for developing a smarter future.

The “It doesn’t do the dishes” (or “Is that all the innovation”?) response

Does it do the dishes? Asking for a friend! (The Fox).

Being a cat lover, one of my favourites is:

…My cat and I hold regular conversations throughout the day, although admittedly they are mostly about food (his). He doesn’t need batteries and can climb stairs – and curtains. (Bimibap).

A question we hear often, typically from those who haven’t played with Gita themselves, is can it do stairs? It can’t, it hasn’t been designed for that purpose (just as a wheelchair or shopping trolley can’t). These comments subtly indicate a common (and understandable) desire to challenge the technology. To tease its meaning and to show how non-intelligent and useless it is compared to other ‘natural systems’, like a cat for example. We can probably agree sometimes. However, it is an interesting attitude because, in my opinion, it also encapsulates all the expectation that years of proclamations about the incredible evolution of technology and the power of machines have suggested to us. As soon as we enter an unusual domain, like robots to stimulate the older adults to walk, not only do we not accept the fact that they may or may not make sense, but we demand that they do more than what they were designed to do. No-one would ask if the COVID-19 vaccine could also cure cancer, or if a submarine could also fly. I’m sure that smarter objects will come along soon, with reasonably cheap technology and an acceptable empathic effect that can also do stairs. Or a vaccine to cure cancer and dozens of viruses, all at once. But in the meantime, what do we have available? Can it help us? How? To what end? Is it worth it to invest in this research?

The “I don’t want to be cared for by a machine” response

How depressing…that interaction with friends, family and neighbours can possibly replicated by a robot. Do people really feel less isolated or could it be that by taking part in a study that they felt included, worthwhile?… (MarmiteSoldier)

In our work at NICA, this is a recurring consideration that cannot be covered in a few lines. Do we really want to interact with machines instead of a human being? Of course, we don’t. Or do we? (Read the comment below). We are full of technological suggestions to try to fight social isolation and loneliness (which are two different phenomena and certainly do not affect only the older people, on the contrary), and I think we should start considering these suggestions for what they are, thinking about contexts, about their ability to interact in a natural way or not, about the cost, and about the overall opportunity presented – can they help us stay more healthy, active and reduce the cost of care for taxpayers? In the early 1950s, Jacques Tati stigmatised television for the same reason and through his wonderful art he helped us understand – by making us smile at our own idiosyncrasies – how we were building this same hedonistic, individualistic, and Western-centric consumer society in which we are immersed today and which we find so hard to redesign. And yet this is the society we are in, we actively or passively wanted it ourselves. This society is the child of our progress, of our intelligence, of our incessant search for something else, even though the sea, the moon, the sun, or the people we love are probably unparalleled in their beauty and functions and should fulfil us as is. There are many differently sophisticated machines that supplement, sometimes augment, sometimes replace, more often mediate, our relationships with the context in which we live and interact. Taking it for granted that they are useless and detestable palliatives means thinking that we all have access to something or someone when we need it, and that that someone is always available, kind, polite, and attentive to how we are. It means taking it for granted that we all prefer to be alone and/or isolated when no one is around. And yet someone thinks otherwise.

The “I want a machine as a companion” response

My mum is elderly and lonely since my dad died. We tried to fix her up with a pet cat in lockdown, but it failed because she could not cope with the responsibility. I know that sounds mad… long story. We see her at least weekly, and we phone her lots but she’s frequently alone nonetheless and doesn’t want to lose her independence by going into a sheltered place yet. She might lose the robot (or knowing Southwark in London where she lives, it might get pinched from under her nose) but it’s something that might be a welcome distraction in the meantime. (Ring-a-ding-ding)

As soon as we start considering the contexts of life, technology becomes a possibility. Without exception. Do we prefer a psychologist, or an app based on natural language and machine learning to respond to our mental support needs? Do we prefer a real arm or a prosthesis? Do we prefer a flesh and blood friend or a plastic object with two wheels smart enough to follow us when needed?

I have no need to, but I think my father who is disabled, and wheelchair bound would love it. I have a neighbour also disabled who takes his dog out. The dog follows him completely when out in the wheelchair, and I think this would be great in perhaps a small shop rather than a supermarket where the assistants have more capacity to load Gita up. (Dr Nick Cornish).

The interesting thing about our ongoing research is that it confirms how people can establish an empathic relationship with objects. Who among us has not spoken up to tell a sat-nav and its pedantic advice to go to hell? And – the most interesting aspects of our research is that this happens even when robots do not talk or has no anthropomorphic features.

Children become attached to teddies, knowing they are not real. These are like more sophisticated teddies, security blankets if you will, with the added bonus that they carry the heavy shopping home too. (Norah Ward).

We have seen people interact with Gita: they talk to it, cuddle it – even though it doesn’t look like a humanoid and does nothing but follow people. It’s not about age, it’s about our ability to relate to the universe. Real or virtual.

The pragmatists

Cheaper than many pedigree dogs (Scrappy-Doo)

Yes, why not? Just so long as it wasn’t renamed HAL (Stuart Condie)

Pathetic. I’d get more than one to dog my enemies (William Bill).

Literally a cluster of the audience: very straightforward, interested and polarized in the same time, typically rich in sarcasm which I personally lo

The “we can make it better” response

Talking about some disruptive technologies like this one also stimulates people to think. It is different from those described before who challenge it for the sake of doing it, here you can find a genuine attempt to improve the existing.

Great idea. Should also be thief-proof if it is connected to the owner’s mobile and screams if taken away from them suddenly, sends out signals to the local police and locks up solid, brick-like and unusable until it nears again owners mobile”. (James Murray) or “We are told the robot can carry up to 51lb (23kg). But it would be more useful, perhaps, at least for food shopping, to know the volume of space available eg the equivalent of how many cereal packets. Many packaged food items do not weigh much, but take up a lot of space. (Mr Walter Ford)

This is how smart customer support works, and this is how the most successful companies on our planet are improving services and technologies to us. Involving people in debugging, improving, rethinking not only help to speed the innovation but also make people be part of that journey. Which is my final point.

We need to ask people, we need to listen to people. I mean everyone, but especially those who nobody wants to listen to or ask. I strongly believe that we need to prove (technological) innovation is not only something “for the elected” or for some Z, Y generations only. We must be aware that when we stigmatize technology as useless for the older adults, or when we avoid exploring what could be feasible for us in different stages of life, we’re effectively telling older people: “you are the others”, “you don’t deserve the services and tools the people (the press, the media, the news, the smart politicians, you name it) are using”, “Your opinions are useless, why would we waste time asking you?”.

We don’t know who we are if we ignore who we shall be too. This future is also made of what we are creating today using our ingenuity. I am pretty sure it is not perfect, however ignoring it or ignoring the dynamics behind it could be a mistake of which we don’t know the impacts yet. Or better, we know it. It is discrimination, it is called ageism.