Ethical perceptions towards real-world use of companion robots with older people and people with dementia: Survey opinions among younger adults
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Background: Use of companion robots may reduce older people’s depression, loneliness and agitation. This benefit has to be contrasted against possible ethical concerns raised by philosophers in the field around issues such as deceit, infantilisation, reduced human contact and accountability. Research directly assessing prevalence of such concerns among relevant stakeholders, however, remains limited, even though their views clearly have relevance in the debate. For example, any discrepancies between ethicists and stakeholders might in itself be a relevant ethical consideration while concerns perceived by stakeholders might identify immediate barriers to successful implementation. Methods: We surveyed 67 younger adults after they had live interactions with companion robot pets while attending an exhibition on intimacy, including the context of intimacy for older people. We asked about their perceptions of ethical issues. Participants generally had older family members, some with dementia. Results: Most participants (40/67, 60%) reported having no ethical concerns towards companion robot use when surveyed with an open question. Twenty (30%) had some concern, the most common being reduced human contact (10%), followed by deception (6%). However, when choosing from a list, the issue perceived as most concerning was equality of access to devices based on socioeconomic factors (m=4.72 on a scale 1-7), exceeding more commonly hypothesized issues such as infantilising (m=3.45), and deception (m=3.44). The lowest-scoring issues were potential for injury or harm (m=2.38) and privacy concerns (m=2.17). Over half (39/67 (58%)) would have bought a device for an older relative. Cost was a common reason for choosing not to purchase a device. Conclusions: Although a relatively small study we demonstrated discrepancies between ethical concerns raised in the philosophical literature and those likely to make the decision to buy a companion robot. Such discrepancies, between philosophers and ‘end-users’ in care of older people, and in methods of ascertainment, are worthy of further empirical research and discussion. Our participants were more concerned about economic issues and equality of access, an important consideration for those involved with care of older people. On the other hand the concerns proposed by ethicists seem unlikely to be a barrier to use of companion robots.
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