How 'Connected' Will Your Aging Be in the Robotic Age?

How 'Connected' Will Your Aging Be in the Robotic Age?

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Image:Connected Aging” Mind-Body technologies. Courtesy: David Lindeman, CITRIS.

Part 2. Also, read Part 1 here.

For Americans, the age of technology is also—thanks to the huge boomer generation--an era of rapid aging. An underlying question is how big a role machines will need to play in caring for older adults in the coming decades. AARP has predicted a “caregiving cliff,” estimating that by 2030, there will be only four family caregivers available for every person needing care. That, they say, will drop to three caregivers by midcentury.

Technology is certainly expected to help fill the void, but to what degree? Richard Adler, a research associate at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, has been studying the nexus of

Learning from Sensors

Researchers can learn quite a bit about a person’s behavior without the benefit of a talking robot, according to Diane Cook, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems. [http://casas.wsu.edu/] She has spent the past decade studying how older adults live, and she’s done it without cameras or microphones—and the privacy concerns they raise. She and her team only use sensors.

Not only are the devices able to keep track of safety matters, such as whether the stove was left on or water was running, but they have been able to gather lots of enlightening data on how people moved around their homes.

“Motion sensors are the bread and butter because they can point to where a person is in the home,” she stated. “Location alone doesn’t let you know what’s going on, but when you combine it with the time of day, what happened right before, and where they were, then you can start to see patterns that make a lot of sense.”

The research has been augmented by assessments of the subjects’ mental and physical health every six months, and it turned out that Cook and her team were able to predict “with promising results” how people would score on the tests, based on what the sensor data showed about their behavior. Changes in sleep patterns, for instance, were found to be correlated with changes in cognitive health.

“The greatest predictive performance, however, was achieved when we considered a very large number of features describing all detected activity patterns,” she explained. ”There is no one silver bullet behavior that indicates a change in health. The person needs to be looked at holistically.”

The goal ultimately is to develop algorithms that will be able to predict what behavior changes mean, so steps can be taken to prevent health problems or emotional issues from worsening.

That, say longtime researchers like Lindeman, could be one of the greater benefits of technology when it comes to addressing the needs of an aging society. “We will be able to identify when people have differences in their gait, differences in their affect, differences in their interactions and the way they communicate, and that could help us pick up signs of depression and dementia much earlier.”

--Randy Rieland

technology and aging more than 25 years, and he agrees that the key is finding the proper role for machines.

“There’s always been this interesting paradox at the heart of it,” he said. “Of all the age groups, older adults stand to benefit the most from technology. In a lot of ways. But it also is the group that has the lowest level of adoption.”

He’s encouraged by the recent big leaps in voice recognition by machines because it allows older people to use technology without having to mess with smartphones or typing on small keyboards. “But that’s a long way from saying this is a tool that combats social isolation,” he went on. “Because that would involve a lot more than a machine with a nice voice.”

For all the possible benefits of artificial intelligence in helping older adults stay on top of their health needs and social activities, Adler is wary of machines taking too much control. “There’s the discussion of AI versus IA—intelligence augmented—where machines extend human capabilities instead of replacing them.”

That tension between what technology can now do and how much older people actually use it is at the heart of what’s become known as “connected aging”—the use of machines, from smartphones to sensors to wearable devices, that can enable adults to grow old in their own homes.

David Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging in California, has been studying how older adults interact with machines for a long time. Although he notes that researchers are still in the early stages of understanding how technology can affect social isolation, he sees a lot of potential.

“I think it’s better to err on the side of let’s get people engaged and see what works,” said Lindeman, also co-director of the university’s Health Care at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).

“There are such deficits in terms of social engagement for a lot of people.” He points to software that makes it easier for older adults to share stories from their past, and the use of virtual reality [http://tinyurl.com/mwwpmuc] to help them feel less isolated.

Lindeman also said sensors and other devices are making it easier to track the movements of older adults and determine if they’ve fallen or may need help. “If you capture enough information, you’ll be able to tell if a fall is serious or not,” he noted, “and you’d be better able to help people keep from going to the emergency room unnecessarily.”

Drawing Lines

It all sounds very promising, and clearly timely. But as with any technology, the rapid advances in AI and robotics can jump ahead of comprehending their impact. Guy Hoffman certainly understands this. Hoffman is a leading expert on human-robot interactions. A TED talk he did a few years ago, in which he showed robots improvising music, has been viewed almost 3 million times.

Now a researcher and visiting assistant professor at Cornell University, Hoffman served as an advisor on the ElliQ project. Lately, he’s been focused on seeing if robots can learn to be more responsive to humans.

He explained a recent research project with which he was involved. In the study, a group of test subjects were asked to share with a robot a difficult situation they had experienced. Half of the people interacted with a device Hoffman described as “more robotic”—it responded to the stories with a detached attitude, offering an occasional “Thank you. Continue.” In some cases, Hoffman noted, they even had the robot look at a cell phone while the person was talking.

But the other half of the research subjects talked to a robot designed to feel more empathetic. It leaned forward as the person talked, and when there was a pause in the story, might make a comment like, “That sounds like that was a really difficult thing to go through.”

The study produced some fascinating results. “We found that people felt those robots seem to care more about them,” he said. When the subjects were asked to follow up the storytelling with a stressful task—recording a video for a dating site—some asked if the “empathetic” robot could be there with them.

“They said that actually made them feel more confident about themselves,” Hoffman recalled. “People said they felt more attractive after they had received more of the responsive behavior.”

Hoffman conceded having mixed feelings about it. “There’s a bright side and a dark side to all of this. Do we want people to talk to robots when they feel lonely? Are we solving a problem or are we making it worse? Those are the questions we need to ask.”

In addition, he said, “I always remind people that success should not be measured by technological success, but by societal success. There is a distinction that needs to be made between what is possible to do and what is desirable to do with robotics.

“That is really one of the most important conversations we need to have about technology today,” Hoffman said. “In one way, technology is increasingly successful in addressing our social needs. But we do not want the technology to drive our human values. We want our human values to drive our technology.”

Randy Rieland wrote this series for Smithsonian.com with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.