Social robots as social catalysts: Collaborating with older adults as design research partners


Erin Partridge

Erin Partridge

Worldwide, the number of people over the age of 60 is rising faster than any other age group—from 962 million in 2017 to an expected 2.1 billion in 2050, and 3.1 billion in 2100. The number of people over 80 is rising even faster, more than tripling from 137 million in 2017 to 425 million in 2050, and increasing nearly seven-fold, to 909 million, by 2100. By 2050, these older adults will make up about a quarter of the population in every region except the continent of Africa. 

This demographic shift is already creating challenges to helping older people maintain their health and their relationships within their communities. A team of researchers from the Personal Robots group is exploring how robots might contribute to their social and emotional wellbeing. While previous research in this area has investigated human-robot engagement in the context of older adults, this project is focused on how the robots may affect the participants’ connections to other people.   

Anastasia Ostrowski, a research assistant in the Personal Robots group, explains: “Social connections between community members are key to maintaining emotional wellness, especially for older adults. As they age, some older adults are unable to stay in their homes independently and move to assisted living centers. This can be stressful, as it requires orientation into a new community, along with changes in routine and location. Many older adults experience this change, and assisted living communities bring together a multitude of different people with varying life experiences. Community social connection is important to help older adults maintain emotional wellness and overall health in these circumstances.” 

In a three-week study, Ostrowski and co-authors Daniella DiPaola, Hae Won Park, Erin Partridge, and Cynthia Breazeal deployed social robots into the community spaces of an assisted living community, holistically exploring their effects on the older adults’ relationships and perceptions of their community through participatory and human-centered design, mixed-method analysis, and art therapy approaches. The design of the study was a key consideration in this work. 

“Older adults have a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities, so when selecting our methods of engagement and design, we had to consider which would both provide a flexible approach for participation and ensure the participants’ autonomy was respected and they felt valued in the process of working with us,” Ostrowski says. “This includes considerations like how long the activity lasted, or what accommodations could be made for participants’ physical limitations. For example, we included a design kit activity that uses cards some participants had difficulty moving. We adapted the activity so older adults could raise a piece of paper indicating their choice for an action (such as, “Would you want the robot to suggest you drink water?”) as the moderator cycled through the responses (“Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”). 


Erin Partridge

“Social robots are a new consumer-facing technology which is starting to transition beyond academic research to commercialization. We’ve already been able to show that they are a particularly attractive and appealing technology for older adults, and could play an important role in helping people to not just age with independence, but also to thrive. Our group has been actively engaging older adults in the interaction design of social robots, an important area of design research we have not explored before,” says Cynthia Breazeal, who directs the Personal Robots group at the Media Lab.

Ostrowski notes that although older adults are often stereotyped as a homogenous population that isn’t open to new experiences, this does not reflect reality. In fact, many older adults enjoy working with new technologies, and appreciate the opportunity to participate in designing them, as too much design for older adults is medical and sterile, without a variety of choices or possibilities for customization. 

As the study progressed, the robots became members of the community, though people didn’t necessarily come out into the community spaces to interact with the robots—rather, they came out to see if other people were there. “Over time,” Ostrowski says, “the presence of the social robot in the community space drew people out of their rooms to interact with other people; not so much the robot.” 

Interacting with the social robot also prompted conversations between the human residents of the community. One of the researchers’ favorite stories, featured in their paper about the study, involves two residents who sat down with the robot. “One of the residents (P7) wanted to introduce the social robot to another resident (P18),” Ostrowski says. “P7 introduced the social robot as a ‘very friendly person,’ and shared how to work with it. P18, who was new to the community and striving to connect with people, was excited to get acquainted with the robot. After they interacted with the robot for a bit, P18 and P7 turned to one another and began discussing other things about themselves. This story is a perfect example of how the social robot encouraged the residents of the community to connect with one another.” 


Erin Partridge

This is a slightly different dynamic than the researchers have seen in other demographic groups working with social robots. According to Personal Robots research assistant Randi Williams, has studied children’s interactions with autonomous social agents, kids will often bounce ideas about the robot off of each other, and their parents even get engaged in the activities. In contrast, Ostrowski says, older adults tend to ignore the robot after a while and move to more human-human interaction. “We see the social robot serve as a sort of ‘social catalyst’ for people,” says Breazeal.

By moving beyond any preconceived notions of how the study participants would interact with the robots, the researchers were able to discover new possibilities in human-robot interaction. Ostrowski  says, “The most rewarding part of this work comes from our human-centered, participatory design approach, which allows older adults to feel they are contributing to future social robot design. Often, older adults believe they do not have a right to design technology, there isn't a place for them in technology design, and their opinions are not wanted. But when they’re valued as design research partners, older adults feel empowered to contribute to technology design. We really enjoyed seeing older adults gain confidence in their responses and boldness to contribute to designing social robots.”

“The most challenging part of this work,” she continues, “is developing design tools and methodology that respect older adults’ capabilities, effort, and time. This also means that we as researchers have to learn how to communicate with others in nonexpert terms, diminishing the gap between technology jargon and everyday terms—creating a ‘language of engagement’ that enables older adults to join us in technology development.” 

For the next phase of this research, the Personal Robots group has launched a long-term co-design study to further engage older adults in the design process for a social robot they could keep in their personal space, rather than a communal area, and explore the benefits and barriers of having this technology in the home. For example, participants in the original study noted that there were some interactions with the robot that they would not be comfortable engaging in if it were in a community space, such as asking it for personal reminders. Ostrowski is leading the new study, continuing to collaborate with Erin Partridge from Eldercare Alliance in Alameda, California and working with the PIs of the project, Personal Robots research scientist Hae Won Park and Cynthia Breazeal. Daniella DiPaola, a co-author on the original paper, is now a research assistant with Personal Robots, working with research assistant Blakeley Payne on an AI + Ethics curriculum for middle school students, interested broadly in the social, emotional, and ethical implications of AI. 

In the future, more research is needed to determine the optimal location for a social robot with respect to community and social connectedness. The researchers intend to explore how best to mediate older adults’ concerns about technology, which often revolve around privacy and security, and see how education or increased transparency could encourage these participants to interact with the technology more freely. The participants’ design preferences and responses around how social robots fit into their community will continue to inform the creation of robot skills and experiences to further enable human-human social connection. 

Related Content