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Penn State Researchers Find Old People Are Terrified Of Robots

Robots may seem futuristic, but right now there are teams of people at Penn State dedicated to studying them.

Dr. Shyam Sundar founded the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State. He has numerous publications and studies ranging from how people interact online to how the population views robots becoming robot overlords. “The primary basis [of my research] is looking at the psychological aspects of different communication technologies,” Dr. Sundar said. “Broadly speaking, I study the uses and effects of communication technologies by human users and how that intersection between technology and users works.”

In one of his latest publications, Dr. Sundar’s research team found senior citizens strongly fear robots may one day become masters or overlords to humans. “We found what we call a third-person effect,” Dr. Sundar said, “which is senior citizens thought it wouldn’t affect them, but it would affect the younger ones. This is what we discovered across age and generation.”

Younger generations of children have more experience with robots than senior citizens, whether that experience comes from having a robotic cleaner in the house or being involved with the increasing number of robotics programs in schools across the nation. This could probably explain why younger generations tend to have less fear of robots becoming overlords one day, but the reasons for senior citizens having a fear of robots doesn’t stop at the lack of experience with them.

“In general, there’s a tendency to view robots as a threat, in part because Hollywood portrayals show extreme examples of robot armies because that’s what makes an interesting story,” Dr. Sundar said.

Numerous threatening robot movies come to mind when thinking of Hollywood movies, whether it’s “iRobot” or any of the Terminator movies, and it’s easy to see how these movies have a negative effect on the human view of robots, especially when it comes to senior citizens. “Their only experience are the ones in movies, and they shape their worldview of how robots are,” Dr. Sundar said.

The intriguing part of Dr. Sundar’s studies on the fear of robot overlords is the fact senior citizens are still in favor of having robots as assistants. “In our own research, we’re finding they’re seeing more and more use for robotic assistance,” Dr. Sundar explained. “They would like robots to be their assistants, but not their masters.” This can all be tied back into the third-person effect that Dr. Sundar’s research team found in the study. The senior citizens, though they may want more assistance from robots, still won’t believe they will become slaves to the robot, just that somebody else will.

Another major component of seniors fearing the notion robots will one day overthrow humans is the lack of knowledge about the engineering feats that have actually been accomplished by scientists and engineers. “One of the biggest challenges is for robots to open a door,” Dr. Sundar said. “They are tremendous at mental calculations, but when you ask them to walk or open a door, there are lots of competitions all over the world every year to do specifically that.”

It seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation to calm the fear of robots becoming overlords, and Dr. Sundar does just that. “That’s what I tell people when they say they are afraid of robot armies or terminators,” he continued. “I said, ‘All you have to do is run inside and close the door.'”

Dr. Sundar explained that for the future, although generations of children are going to have increasingly more experience with robots, the engineering developments which the robots will go through could instill the fear of robot overlords even further.

“Robots are going to be coming increasingly more able to do things that might be eerily human,” Dr. Sundar explained. “They might be able to achieve the ability to strike targets with great precision, great accuracy, and speed that is superhuman in a way.”

He explained the dual tension is sure to exist, much as it does today, between using more robots in everyday tasks, but fearing the robot revolution against humans. “[People] will have more room to worry because robots are going to develop,” Dr. Sundar said. “But at the same time, robots are also going to be in our day-to-day lives doing very non-threatening, menial tasks that range from being pets or to helping in everyday day-to-day tasks.”

Much like any technology, robots don’t think on their own. They don’t have a brain, and can’t make conscious decisions without the help of a programmer. With that information, Dr. Sundar said, “Robotics is a technology that doesn’t inherently have any good or bad effects to it. You could use a hammer to hit a nail, or you can use a hammer to hurt somebody.”

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About the Author

Matt Coleman

Matt Coleman is a writer for Onward State. His hometown is North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, a little under an hour from Pittsburgh. He is a sophomore majoring in Natural Resource Engineering in Biological Engineering. Please e-mail questions and comments to [email protected] Also, follow him on Twitter @cole_man2.


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