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Balance of privacy and control key to acceptance of robot bath assistants

October 15, 2014

While the past decade has witnessed the emergence of various prototypes and research projects involving bathing robots, the public acceptance of the concept seems to largely depend on one socially sensitive topic: privacy.

Why make bathing robots in the first place? Those who develop bathing robots in Japan (e.g., Sanyo Electric Company) and those conducting research about bathing robots (e.g., Chih-Hung King et al., at Georgia Tech) make the following arguments:

  1. Bathing robots will bring about economic advantage in supporting the growing elderly population
  2. They can help increase the sense of privacy, independence and quality of life for the elderly being supported.

With these possible advantages in mind, how does the societal acceptance of these robots compare? And how does this interact with the varying level of autonomy a robot can have?

In our latest reader poll, we asked “What level of autonomy would you be comfortable with?” in a bathing robot.

As shown in the figure below, respondents generally accept and trust the idea of bathing robots: almost half said that they would prefer the robot to operate with a full level of autonomy without human supervision, another 39% of the participants said that they’d be comfortable giving partial control to the robot, and 13% said they would prefer full-autonomy that included human supervision. Only 4% of the participants said that they would prefer that the robot had no autonomy.

RHome2

We also examined the reasons why people would be comfortable with more autonomous operation of bathing robots than others. We found that the reasons are in a careful balance of two key factors: privacy and the need to control.

The main reason people gave in choosing full autonomy is that bathing is a private experience and one that is uncomfortable in the presence of a human caregiver. This seems to echo the arguments of the manufacturers and researchers studying this area, as described above.

On the other hand, the participants who are comfortable with only a partially autonomous robot didn’t quite trust that the fully autonomous version of the technology would be safe enough to use alone. For some people, having more manual control over the robot (semi to no autonomy) isn’t just about safety, it’s also about the ability to customize and control their bathing experience in order to improve comfort. A few participants also expressed concern for their privacy in relation to the robot (as opposed to the more common desire to maintain privacy in relation to a human caregiver).

While the notion of privacy varies from culture to culture, and further research could be done to study the cultural differences in the acceptance of robot bathing assistants, these results suggest that autonomous bath robots could be accepted by consumers so long as the user feels safe and in control of the robot.

The results of the poll presented in this post have been analyzed and written by Shalaleh Rismani and AJung Moon at the Open Roboethics initiative.

Open Roboethics Initiative is a roboethics thinktank concerned with studying robotics-related design and policy issues... read more


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