The growing proportion of elderly people in society, together with recent advances in robotics, makes the use of robots in elder care increasingly likely. We outline developments in the areas of robot applications for assisting the elderly and their carers, for monitoring their health and safety, and for providing them with companionship. Despite the possible benefits, we raise and discuss six main ethical concerns associated with: (1) the potential reduction in the amount of human contact; (2) an increase in the feelings of objectification and loss of control; (3) a loss of privacy; (4) a loss of personal liberty; (5) deception and infantilisation; (6) the circumstances in which elderly people should be allowed to control robots. We conclude by balancing the care benefits against the ethical costs. If introduced with foresight and careful guidelines, robots and robotic technology could improve the lives of the elderly, reducing their dependence, and creating more opportunities for social interaction
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Allen, C., Wallach, W., & Smit, I. (2006). Why machine ethics? IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 12–17.
Anderson, M., & Anderson, S. (2008) “EthEl: Toward a principled ethical eldercare robot”. In Proceedings of the AAAI Fall 2008 Symposium on AI in Eldercare: New solutions to old problems. Arlington, VA, November.
Anderson, M., Anderson, S. L., & Armen, C. (2006). An approach to computing ethics. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 56–63.
Banks, M. R., & Banks, W. A. (2002). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities. Journals of Gerontology Series A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 57A, M428–M432.
Banks, M. R., & Banks, W. A. (2005). The effects of group and individual animal assisted therapy on loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities. Anthrozoos, 18, 396–408.
Banks, M. R., Willoughby, L. M., & Banks, W. A. (2008). Animal-assisted therapy and loneliness in nursing homes: Use of robotic versus living dogs. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 9, 173–177.
Cayton, H. (2006). From childhood to childhood? Autonomy and dependence through the ages of life. In J. C. Hughes, S. J. Louw, & S. R. Sabat (Eds.), Dementia: Mind, meaning, and the person (pp. 277–286). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. J. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58, 10–23.
Coleridge, S.T. (1817) Biographia Literaria, chapter 14 (p. 314).
Deegan, P., Grupen, R., Hanson, A., Horrell, E., Ou, S., Riseman, E., Sen, S., Thibodeau, B., Williams, A., & Xie, D. (2007). Mobile Manipulators for Assisted Living in Residential Settings, Autonomous Robots, Special Issue on Socially Assistive Robotics. 24(2).
Doshi, F., & Roy, N. (2008). Spoken language interaction with model uncertainity: An adaptive human-robot interaction system. Connection Science, 20(4), 299–318.
Forlizzi, J., DiSalvo, C., & Gemperle, F. (2004). Assistive robotics and an ecology of elders living independently in their homes. Human-Computer Interaction, 19, 25–59.
Fratiglioni, L., Wang, H.-X., Ericsson, K., et al. (2000). Influence of social network on occurrence of dementia: A community-based longitudinal study. Lancet, 355, 1315–1319.
Friedman, B., & Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2003). Human values, ethics, and design. In J. A. Jacko & A. Sears (Eds.), The human–computer interaction handbook (pp. 1177–1201). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. (2006). Value sensitive design and information systems. In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (Eds.), Human–computer interaction in management information systems: Foundations (pp. 348–372). Armonk, NY; London, England: M.E. Sharpe. Reprinted (2008) in K. E. Himma & H. T. Tavani (Eds.), The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (pp. 69–101). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54, 1389–1398.
Heinrichs, M., von Dawan, s B., & Domes, G. (2009). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and human social behavior. Front. Neuroendocrinol. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2009.05.005.
Holtzman, R. E., Rebok, G. W., Saczynski, J. S., et al. (2004). Social network characteristics and cognition in middle-aged and older adults. Journals of Gerontology Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59, P278–P284.
House of Lords, House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights (2006–2007). The human rights of elder people in health care. London: The Stationary Office Ltd.
Kahn, P. H., Jr., Friedman, B., Perez-Granados, D., & Freier, N. G. (2006). Robotic pets in the lives of preschool children. Interaction Studies, 7(3), 405–436.
Kanamori, M., Suzuki, M., & Tanaka, M. (2002). Maintenance and improvement of quality of life among elderly patients using a pet-type robot. Japanese Journal of Geriatrics, 39, 214–218.
Kikusui, T., Winslow, J. T., & Mori, Y. (2006). Social buffering: Relief from stress and anxiety. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2215–2228.
Kitwood, T. (1997). Dementia reconsidered: The person comes first. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Langer, E. J., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191–198.
Lopes, M. M., Koenig, N. P., Chernova, S. H., Jones, C. V., & Jenkins, O. C. (2009). Mobile human-robot teaming with environmental tolerance. In Proceedings of the 4th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human Robot Interaction (La Jolla, California, USA, March 09–13, 2009). HRI ‘09. ACM, New York, NY, 157–164.
Melson, G. F., Kahn, P. H., Jr., Beck, A. M., Friedman, B., Roberts, T., Garrett, E., & Gill, B. T. (2010). Robots as dogs?—Children’s interactions with the robotic dog AIBO and a live Australian shepherd. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (in press b).
New Scientist online (2008) http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2008/11/honda-helps-you-walk.html.
Nguyen, H., Anderson, C., Trevor, A., Jain, A., Xu, Z., & Kemp, C.C. (2008). El-E: An assistive robot that fetches objects from flat surfaces. In HRI Workshop on Robotic Helpers: User Interaction Interfaces and Companions in Assistive and Therapy Robots.
Nissenbaum, H. (1998). Protecting privacy in an information age: The problem of privacy in public. Law and Philosophy, 17, 559–596.
Older people and human rights: Research and Mapping Report. 2009-11-03 Age Concern England and British Institute of Human Rights.
Orpwood, R., Adlam, T., Evans, N., & Chadd, J. (2008). Evaluation of an assisted-living smart home for someone with dementia. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 2(2), 13–21.
Pollack, M. E., Engberg, S., Matthews, J. T., Thrun, S., Brown, L., Colbry, D., Orosz, C., Peintner, B., Ramakrishnan, S., Dunbar-Jacob, J., McCarthy, C., Montemerlo, M., Pineau, J., & Roy, N. (2002) Pearl: A mobile robotic assistant for the elderly. In AAAI Workshop on Automation as Eldercare, Aug 2002.
Saczynskil, J. S., Pfeifer, L. A., Masaki, K., Korf, E. S. C., Laurin, D., White, L., et al. (2006). The effect of social engagement on incident dementia: The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 163(5), 433–440.
Schacter, O. (1983). Human dignity as a normative concept. The American Journal of International Law, 77(4), 848–854.
Sharkey, N. E. (2008). The ethical frontiers of robotics. Science, 322, 1800–1801.
Sharkey, N. E. (2009) The robot arm of the law grows longer. IEEE Computer, 42(8), 115–116.
Sharkey, N., & Sharkey, A. (2006). Artificial intelligence and natural magic. Artificial Intelligence Review, 25, 9–19.
Sharkey, N., & Sharkey, A. (2010a). Living with robots: Ethical tradeoffs in eldercare. In Y. Wilks (Ed.), Close engagements with artificial companions: Key psychological, social, ethical and design issues (pp. 245–256). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Sharkey, N., & Sharkey, A. (2010b). The crying shame of robot nannies: An ethical appraisal. Interaction Studies, 11(2), 161–190.
Smith, J. (2003). Stress and aging: Theoretical and empirical challenges for interdisciplinary research. Neurobiology of Aging, Suppl 1, S77–S80; discussion S81–S82.
Sparrow, R. (2002). The march of the robot dogs. Ethics and Information Technology, 4, 305–318.
Sparrow, R., & Sparrow, L. (2006). In the hands of machines? The future of aged care. Mind and Machine, 16, 141–161.
Takayama, L. (2010). On making robots invisible-in-use. In Proceedings of the International Symposium on New Frontiers in Human–Robot Interaction: AISB 2010, Leicester, UK.
Tamura, T., Yonemitsu, S., Itoh, A., Oikawa, D., Kawakami, A., Higashi, Y., et al. (2004). Is an entertainment robot useful in the care of elderly people with severe dementia? Journals of Gerontology Series A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 59(1), 83–85.
Tavani, H., & Moor, J. (2001). Privacy protection, control of information, and privacy-enhancing technologies. Computers and Society, 31(1), 6–11.
Turkle, S., Breazeal, C., Dasté, O., & Scassellati, B. (2006b). First encounters with Kismet and Cog: Children respond to relational artifacts. In P. Messaris & L. Humphreys (Eds.), Digital media: Transformations in human communication. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Turkle, S., Taggart, W., Kidd, C. D., & Dasté, O. (2006a). Relational artifacts with children and elders: The complexities of cybercompanionship. Connection Science, 18, 4, 347–362.
Wada, K., & Shibata, T. (2006) Robot therapy in a care house: Its sociopsychological and physiological effects on the residents. In Proceedings of the 2006 International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Orlando, Florida, May 2006 (pp. 3966–3971).
Wallach, W., & Allen, C. (2009). Moral machines: Teaching robots right from wrong. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wang, H., Karp, A., Winblad, B., & Fratiglioni, L. (2002) Late-life engagements in social and leisure activities is associated with a decreased risk of dementia: A longitudinal study from the Kungsholmen project. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155, 12, 108101087.
Wilks, Y. (2010) Editor, Close engagements with artificial companions: Key psychological, social, ethical and design issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., et al. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 234–240.
Winner, S. (2007). Beam me inside, Scotty! Assisted Living Consult.
Zizek, S. (2002). The Zizek reader. London: Blackwell.
About this article
Cite this article
Sharkey, A., Sharkey, N. Granny and the robots: ethical issues in robot care for the elderly. Ethics Inf Technol 14, 27–40 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-010-9234-6
- Elder care
- Assistive robotics