Movies May Ease Fear of Robots, Study Finds

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Fictional robots may have a real impact on robot acceptance. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Penn State University and presented at last week's Human-Robot Interaction conference, familiarity with robotic movie characters may help ease fears of robots in older adults.

The study asked 379 adults between the ages of 60 and 86 to list up to three films they had seen featuring robot characters. Of those, 160 participants could name one robot film, 129 named two, and 90 named three. Participants were then asked questions about their feelings toward those robots. The most frequently named robot movies included Forbidden Planet (1956), Star Wars (1977), The Terminator (1984), Bicentennial Man (1999), I, Robot (2004), Transformers (2007), and WALL·E (2008).

"One of the most surprising results in general was the more robot portrayals they could recall, regardless of the robot's characteristics, actually led to more positive attitudes on robots and eventually more positive intentions to use a robot," researcher T. Franklin Waddell said. "So, it seems like the more media portrayals they can recall, the more likely their attitudes would be positive toward robots, rather than negative."

And it wasn’t just adorable robot helpers like WALL·E and C-3PO who put the study’s participants at ease. Even threatening robots and deadly assassins like those in the Terminator franchise seemingly curbed participants’ anxiety.

However, overall, it was sympathetic, humanoid representations of robots that seemed most effective in curbing anxiety. Researcher S. Shyam Sundar explained that robots imbued with human characteristics and personalities, like the Barbra Streisand-loving WALL·E, incited the most positive feelings in the study’s participants.

"Increasingly, people are talking about smart homes and health care facilities and the roles robots could play to help the aging process," Sundar said. "Robots could provide everything from simple reminders—when to take pills, for example—to fetching water and food for people with limited mobility."