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Do companion robots need parental controls?

Robots may need to include parental controls, says a new study. Are parents worried about their kids being "in rapport" or bonding with a robot?" You may wish to check out the article, "When my robot smiles at me: Enabling human-robot rapport," or the YouTube video, "Furhat the Social Robot (SVT Rapport)." On one hand you have parents encouraging assistance robots to help those of any age with disabilities to improve their quality of life.

Do companion robots need parental controls?
Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

And on the other hand, you have parents worrying about a child becoming too attached to a robot. Then there's the issue of the assistance robot for older adults or the assistance robot for household chores, such as vacuuming floors, not specially made for those with disabilities. A companion robot is like a friend, there for you to read to or watch a movie and remain next to you. But does it keep you away from meeting real people? Or are you in an isolated situation where there's no opportunity for a time to be with anyone but a companion robot? It would be great to have a robot bodyguard on a hike where you're being confronted by a large predator, and the robot can chase away the animal (or human) who's ambushing you out in some wilderness.

You have the fear of a young person spending too much time with a robot instead of real people. And then you have to deal with older adults' fears that companion robots will negatively affect young people. This could create design challenges for developers hoping to build robots for older users, according to Penn State researchers. An example might be never to leave a young child or an elderly person alone with an unsupervised robot. Another angle is what type of parental controls would be put on a companion robot for a child compared to an assistance robot to help a child or adult of any age with a disability?

Companion robots provide emotional support for users and interact with them as they, for example, play a game, or watch a movie

Older adults reported in a study that while they were not likely to become physically and emotionally dependent on robots, they worried that young people might become too dependent on them, said T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications. Those surveyed also indicated that although they were not worried about being negatively affected by robots, the adults would still resist using the devices.

"We've seen this type of effect, which is usually referred to as a third-person effect, with different types of media, such as video games and television, but this is the first time we have seen the effect in robotics," said Waddell, according to the April 30, 2014 news release, Robots may need to include parental controls. "According to a third person effect, a person says they are not as negatively affected by the media as other people."

The researchers, who presented their findings April 30, 2014 at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, said this effect could eventually lead to changes in behavior. For instance, people who believe video games harm young people may tend to avoid the games themselves. Likewise, older adults who believe that companion robots could harm young people may tend to avoid robots.

To compensate for the effect, robot designers may need to consider adding controls that will help adults monitor the use of robots by children, said Waddell, who worked with S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, and Eun Hwa Jung, a doctoral candidate in mass communications.

"Robot designers and developers look at older adults as a central user base for companion robots," said Waddell, according to the news release. "This effect is something they should consider when designing the interface for the robots to make sure, for example, that the robot includes some type of parental controls."

Robots with parental controls may convince adults that they can own and use robots and still protect children from their fears that the devices might lead to laziness and dependency

The researchers studied two types of robots: companion robots and assistance robots, said Sundar, according to the news release. Assistance robots are devices that help with everyday tasks, such as vacuuming the floor or playing a CD, he said, while companion robots are more interactive.

There's another type of assistance robots (that assist you) in tasks if you have a disability, and for those not using assistance robots for help with a disability, the usual type of assistance robots would play CDs, vacuum floors, or do other types of housework or chores such as changing the CDs on your music listening device.

This interactivity may be one reason that users tend to attach human-like emotions to companion robots, Waddell said, according to the news release. "A companion robot provides the user with a source of friendship," said Waddell, according to the news release. "They might watch TV with the participant, provide emotional support, or complete an activity with the user."

Waddell explained, according to the news release, that the participants did not seem to show the same level of apprehensions about assistance robots

Researchers asked 640 retirees over the age of 60 -- 53 percent female and 47 percent male -- about whether robots would have negative effects on themselves and on others. For instance, they asked the subjects whether robots would make them lazier and encourage them to interact less often with other people. They then asked similar questions about the effects of robots on young people.

The Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology supported this study, which is part of an international research and development program between Penn State and the Industrial Academy Cooperation Foundation of Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea. You also may wish to check out the site of the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems. Or see the ACM library for older articles on companion robots, such as, "Robotic companion for diabetic children: emotional and educational support to diabetic children, through an interactive robot," or "A behavior adaptation method for an elderly companion robot." You also may wish to check out, "Avoiding the uncanny valley: robot appearance, personality and consistency of behavior in an attention-seeking home scenario for a robot companion."

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