Amazon Echo and Alexa for the Elderly
The older adults in our explorer groups have recently become interested in a relatively new product: the Amazon Echo and its artificial intelligence Alexa. Here they explore Amazon Echo for the Elderly.
Amazon Echo & Alexa: What Older Adults Think
Our community of older adult Longevity Explorers has had a number of group discussions about the general suitability of Amazon Echo for the elderly, and a number of our explorers have purchased one of these products, and shared why they like it and what they think Alexa can help them with. This is a summary of our multiple explorations of this newish voice-activated platform — carried out by older adults themselves.
Here are the thoughts of our community of "seniors" on topics like:
- do we want an Amazon Echo?
- what is Alexa anyway?
- why would we want one?
- what do we use it for? and
- wouldn't it be great if it could also do ....
Is Amazon Echo Useful for "Seniors"?
This explorer synthesis is mainly for older adults and their families who want to learn what other older adults see in Alexa, and why they do or do not think it is a useful product. Hopefully the experiences shared below by our explorers will help other older adults decide if the product is interesting for them.
What are Amazon Echo and Alexa?
Before going on, for those readers who are not sure what we are talking about, here is a brief description of what Amazon Echo and Alexa are. Listen to the audio clip below to hear some of our Longevity Explorers talk about what the Amazon Echo does, and why they like it.
Hear some of our explorers introduce their Alexa to the rest of the explorer group in this audio recording.
The Amazon Echo is a cylindrical product about the shape and size of a flower vase, shown in the image on the right. It is designed for you to speak to it, and ask it questions and give commands. And inside it is an artificial intelligence (AI) called "Alexa" who responds and takes actions at your command.
This product is made by Amazon, and you can find a huge amount more about it in the popular press and on the Amazon website, and we are not going to give an extensive review here, or describe it in more detail. As well as the Echo, there are several other similar products in the family (eg the "Dot"), which vary in subtle ways, but are part of the same family.
Below, you will read how older adults use Alexa, and what she can do, and whether we think those things are or are not useful.
What do Elderly People Use their Amazon Echo For?
Attached to this page are a series of audio recordings of the actual explorer discussions about Alexa. You can see them either in the right column or below (depending on the screen size you are using to read this). We have tried to pull out the key findings of relevance to older adults here for easy consumption.
What follows are some use cases the Longevity Explorers like.
1. Listening to Music & the Radio
The use case we heard about most from those explorers who have an Alexa is listening to music and to the radio.
Many of our explorers loved the idea that you can say "Alexa, play "Sergeant Peppers", or "Alexa, please play NPR" (a radio station in the USA), and immediately hear them without needing to fuss with radio stations, or CD's or other music services.
One cautionary note: some of these capabilities (eg music) require a paid service to be connected to your Amazon Echo account.
2. Turning out the Lights. Adjusting the Thermostat.
Several of our explorers reported that the big reason that they had bought Alexa was so they could tell her to turn on or off the lights when they wanted her to. This illustrates a capbility that goes well beyond just listening and talking. It is possible to connect Alexa up so she can actually turn things on and off and take other actions.
Listen to this introduction from one of our explorers to how they use Alexa, and why it is useful for her and her husband to have Alexa be able to turn off the lights. The big advantage: being able to turn off the room lights while you are in bed, without having to get up. They also like being able to ask for the weather.
Explorer Jan explains how she and her husband use Alexa to control lights, and listen to the weather.
Now doing something like this requires you to have a bit of simple home automation set up. For example, to turn off the lights, you either need an intelligent light globe, or an intelligent light plug that can recognize a signal sent by Alexa. Setting these up is beyond the scope of this article but it is not terribly hard, and there are numerous "How to" articles on the Internet about how to do this.
Some other members of our explorer groups were interested in the idea that they could ask Alexa to turn the temperature in the house up or down, and she would automatically adjust the thermostat (requires the right intelligent thermostat).
Here is where dissenting notes started to creep in. While some explorers like this idea, a significant number felt it was better to just do this manually. For example, explorer Helen said "I can adjust my own thermostat just fine. And if we have all these labor saving devices we will all just sit around getting fat and lazy. And isn't exercise meant to be one of the most important things we can do to stay healthy?"
3. What is the Weather Like Today?
Some of our Alexa users love the idea of being able to ask Alexa what the weather is like either outside, or in another city such as where a friend or family member lives. This is discussed in the audio clip above too.
4. "The News"
One of our keen Alexa-users likes getting a news digest early each morning via Alexa. Of course many non-adopters, and even some Alexa enthusiasts prefer the Newspaper!
What do our Longevity Explorers Think of Alexa?
After discussing Alexa at all five of our Longevity Explorer circles, some patterns started to emerge.
First, in most of the circles, one or more explorers already had an Alexa, and almost all the explorers who had them liked them quite a lot. Many of them were what we might call "new owners" though, and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm persists in a year or so.
We did get one report from explorer Richard, who said he no longer used his — and the primary reasons he cited were privacy concerns and the fact that he had to pay to get the music he wanted.
Among the explorers who did not yet have an Amazon Echo, we found fairly mixed views. Quite a few people seemed rather enthusiastic after listening to their peers talk about the product. But a significant fraction seemed distinctly unimpressed. For example, when it came to the topic of checking the weather or the news each day, one man said "I don't need that. I can just look on my iPhone or computer".
This was a bit of a recurring theme. Mostly, Alexa does not do something you can't do by other techniques. It just does it using a voice interface rather than some other interface. Some people really like the simple voice interface. But people who have not tried it are not always so enthusiastic about the idea.
Our conclusion: Alexa seems to be one of those things you need to try out to really appreciate.
One big issue that came up at each circle was privacy.
While Amazon claims that they are not recording everything that goes on, our more cynical explorers did wonder if having a permanently "on" microphone in your house, connected to the Internet, was desirable. "Can it be hacked?" and "Is the NSA listening" were questions that came up fairly frequently.
It does seem hard to have certainty about these topics, and this was clearly off-putting to some of our explorers.
But for others, it was all part of the general surrender of privacy in return for useful services that seems to be common today. For those explorers, it was a tradeoff. If they were convinced the AI Alexa was sufficiently useful, then they would be willing to overlook potential privacy issues.
Is it just a "Novelty"?
The question of how long lived this Amazon Echo / Alexa platform was going to be was a recurring one. Is it like "pet rocks" some asked?
The consensus seemed to be that this was a potentially useful and certainly "different" interface, and that so long as new and more sophisticated capabilities came along, the platform seemed like it was much more than just the fad of 2017. Time will tell if the explorers' crystal ball is correct, of course.
Valuable Extra "Alexa Skills for Seniors"?
Our discussions went beyond just talking about Amazon Echo / Alexa in its present incarnation, and we started to think about whether there might be some very interesting additional capabilities that could be added that would be especially useful for seniors. We came up with quite a few ideas.
Blue Sky Brainstorming: "Alexa Skills for Seniors"
We have had a series of blue sky discussions about all the things a platform like Alexa could be good for, if only it could add a few features that seem not too far fetched. We hope these discussions will be helpful for developers of products and services for seniors who want some good ideas for skills they could develop on top of the Amazon Echo / Alexa platform.
We have not tried to summarize these in this article, as this article is designed for an older adult readership rather than for developers.
For developers who happen on this article, we encourage you to listen to the actual discussions attached to this page and the links below (some require a premium membership). If you want to develop new skills for Alexa to benefit an older adult demographic, and would like our help or advice, please contact us.
To learn more about the ideas our community has for new Alexa skills and other smarthome or robotic innovations we would like to see, please read "Articial Intelligence and Robots: What Older Adults Want".
If you are a developer, you may also be interested in a whole series of discussions our explorers have had in our "Smart Home, Robots, Internet of Things" theme.
Learn More or Buy the Amazon Echo?
Here is the link to the Amazon Echo on Amazon's website.*
See More Explorer Insights
*Note: If you want to support our work, please use the links above if you want to buy yourself one of the products we explore on this page, as we (sometimes) get a small percentage of the sale from Amazon / the Manufacturer. We use this to support our research. It does not effect the price you pay.
Beyond this, we have no financial interest in the products discussed here, and this article is not sponsored or supported in any way by any product vendor. See How we Fund our Work.