Older People Meet Robots : Three Case Studies on the Domestication of Robots in Everyday Life

Abstract: This thesis explores how older people construct meaning, use and make sense of three kinds of robots in their homes. The exploration is undertaken in empirical studies of an assistive robot, an eHealth system, and robotic vacuum cleaners. The research draws on data collected through interviews and observations of older people in relation to three robots. The results show that older people’s domestication of robots cannot be condensed into one universal formula that fits all older people and all robots. The domestication of a robot is a process of constant shaping through negotiations with other people, other technologies, everyday life practice, society, and in relation to and with the robot and ourselves. For robots to be meaningfully and seamlessly integrated into older people’s everyday lives they need to be easy to use and desirable. But they also need to fit into the participants’ home practices. These include older person’s household activities, hobbies, interests, network of people, and the technology cluster in which the older person is situated. The usage of a robot needs to make sense to the older person; she needs to feel that she is in control of the robot and that the level of maintenance is reasonable. If the usage of a robot makes sense to the older person she will be willing to alter stable practices and routines. An important insight that emerged is how stereotypes of older people as weak, ill and housebound are embodied in robots intended for older people. These stereotypes are also constructed or reinforced by society, developers and older people themselves. The research presented demonstrates how this understanding of older people is situated in the home trials and shaped and maintained through them, which has powerful implications for the future development of robots. The findings further demonstrate that there is a difference between what older people say and what they do. The constructed and socially pervasive image of older people as weak, ill and housebound is apparent in how the older participants talk about robots and their potential. They incorporated robots into their everyday lives (as well as other technologies) that made sense to them, but they were unable to do so with robots that did not make sense to them. Instead the “practice of trying out a robot at home” ran parallel with the practices of everyday life during the home trials and became an end in itself. The main finding is not the serious implications of the stereotypical image of older people per se, but rather an understanding of how this stereotype is situated, shaped and maintained in the development. The thesis argues that by recognising the form older people’s participation and influence takes in current robotic developments, we can gain an understanding of the aspects that need to be scrutinised in order to find alternatives to current robotic developments.