Artificial Intelligence and Robots: What Older Adults Want
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robots — and their potential future roles in aging — are topics of great interest to our community of Longevity Explorers. While there has been lots written by academics, companies, and futurists about the potential of robots and AI in aged care, the voice of the older adult is generally absent from these discussions.
This article is our contribution: opinions of a group of older adults (the Longevity Explorers) as to problems they wish a robot, smarthome, or Artifical Intelligence could solve for them.
A series of ongoing explorations: summarized here
Since the community of Longevity Explorers started in late 2014, we have had a number of discussions at our monthly Longevity Explorer circle meetings about problems we think might be solved by the emerging technologies of artificial intelligence and robotics.
During 2015 we (briefly) explored some possibilities for personal care robots, and intelligent home appliances. In 2016 we had a series of discussions on the topic of "what I wish a smarthome or robot could do for me". Then during 2017, our explorers got very intrigued by Amazon Echo and Alexa. As part of a broader exploration of how older adults like to use Alexa, explorers surfaced a number of ideas about "skills we wish Alexa had".
The audio recordings of these discussions have been live on this website for quite some time. But we get frequent requests from entrepreneurs and product developers for a summary and synthesis of some of this material. So, here it is.
This synthesis of discussions is an attempt to capture the essence of the ideas we have been discussing at our monthly (club) meetings. Think of it as a summary, drawn from the opinions of several hundred intellectually curious older adults, of how we think robots, smarthome technology, and Artifical Intelligence might play a role in the future of people like us.
This article is the first of an ongoing series entitled "What Older Adults Want". We expect this series will be of interest primarily to those wishing to create new products and solutions for older adults. For older adults interested in products that exist today, we recommend the companion article on Amazon Echo and Alexa — which covers how our community of older adults use this AI product, and why they like it.
It is important to point out that the Longevity Explorers are not experts in AI or robotics. But we are experts in the way older adults live in America, and the challenges of aging, and the things we would value if they existed. This series is really about "what we wish existed".
If portions of this synthesis pique your interest, the discussions themselves are audio recorded, and you can listen to them online. They are on the side of this page (or at the bottom if you are on a small screen). They contain quite a lot of additional color and explanation that we have not tried to reproduce here, so they are well worth a listen if you want to maximize your learnings from these explorations.
What I Wish a Smarthome (or Robot) Could Do For Me
The question we asked, at a series of Longevity Explorer discussions in 2016 was:
Imagine you could wave a magic wand and have your house, or robot servant, magically do three things for you each week (or day) that would make your life easier — and help you stay in your own home longer. What would those three things be?
Here are some of the topics that came up in the discussions. In this synthesis, we make no attempt to rank these, or discuss which are more pressing or valuable, although these are obviously important questions. In some cases, one might argue that solutions already exist for the things identified, but in the true "brainstorming" spirit, we focus here on generating ideas and needs, rather than analyzing them in detail.
The first things that seem to pop into people's minds are ways to eliminate chores. The explorer circles brought up a broad range of everyday "chores" they would like the smarthome or robot to do for them, listed below.
Chores people wish a robot could do for them:
- Clean out the cat's litter box;
- Do the dusting;
- Make the bed;
- Clean the floor. And the windows;
- Get stuff down from high shelves;
- Find my ... (keys, book etc);
- Cook the dinner. And clean up afterwards;
- Put out the garbage;
- Walk the dog;
- Go to the library to pick up and return your books; reserve books for me online;
- Make a shopping list; order groceries when they run low;
- Suggest recipes based on what is in the fridge;
- Cut the lawn;
- Fetch things from another room; put them away again when I finish with them;
- Carry things upstairs and down;
- Sort the mail;
- Do the laundry;
- Get the groceries from the car and transport them up the stairs.
But, we don't want it to do too much
While discussing chores, several explorers had a quite different point of view.
As one said:
"All these ideas are just helping to make us more sedentary. We really need to keep moving around, and so ideas that involve a robot doing things we could do for ourselves are not a good idea. I like having chores to do."
As this theme was discussed across several circles, a number of nuances emerged.
One explorer pointed out that she would like the robot/smarthome/AI to be able to take over chores when she needed it to. But not before she needed it to. She would like it to be able to monitor her capabilities and know when it was time to take over certain tasks.
Another explorer suggested a different approach. She felt the key was to retain autonomy. In her mind, the ideal "solution" would do her chores when she asked it to. But not just rush off and do them unless she asked first.
Enjoyable things that would improve life
Quite aside from doing the chores, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm for ideas that involved "enabling enjoyable activities". Here are some of the examples discussed.
- Play movies on demand;
- Read books;
- Give a massage;
- Provide a daily health checkup;
- Be someone to talk to;
- Let me visit remotely with my aunt in Assisted Living;
- Engage me in scintillating conversation; expand my mind; keep me company; keep my mind alert;
- Be a "companion" — appealing, charming;
- Talk to me in the language of my choice; help me learn a new language;
- Provide an abstract of the day's news.
General "Things we would like it to do"
And, there was a range of things people were interested in getting done that did not fit the categories above, including:
- Control a wide range of home automation capabilities: lights, locks, smoke and burglar alarms etc;
- Provide reminders (persistence; escalation);
- Do office tasks such as filing, balancing the check book, paying the bills, and finding files when needed;
- "Pick up after me": (things like socks, underwear, pyjamas);
- Dispense pills and medication in the correct amounts;
- Remind me when it is time to take a drink so I stay hydrated;
- Health monitoring of various sorts;
- Be a "virtual assistant" that could answer the phone and emails and texts;
- More virtual assistant capabilities: send texts I tell it to send; make phone calls for me; remind others they are supposed to meet me at a specific time; remind me of appointments;
- Absorb my priorities for the day, and remind me of them when I get distracted;
- Remind me of a person's name when I see them;
- Manage my passwords for me;
- Monitor my safety, including being available to scare off intruders if needed;
- Call 911 if it notices problems or if I ask it to;
- Tell me if the water faucet is left on, or the stove gets left on;
- Act as an interface for family and friends, who could query the AI on occasion about how things are going;
- Connect to the outside world; act as a concierge of interesting neighbourhood activities I might be interested in;
- Be my friend.
Some specific concepts
It would not be a proper brainstorming exercise if some specific concepts were not mentioned. In fact, we did not set out to create "concepts", but rather to focus on what we wanted the new technology to be able to do. Still, here are some of the concepts people mentioned.
- A better "grabber" (more robust and better made), capable of picking up a wide range of things from paper to Bocce balls;
- A system/device that could "get me outside" regularly, including up and down stairs if need be.
Personal Assistance Robots & Intelligent Appliances
We have had a number of discussions around topics like Personal Care Robots, and Intelligent Home Appliances. We decided not to include these topics in this synthesis. However, if you are interested in these topics, you can find the discussions in our "Smart Home, Robots, Internet of Things" channel.
During the course of 2017 our explorer circles became increasingly interested in Alexa and the Amazon Echo. We facilitated a series of discussions about Alexa across the different Longevity Explorer circles. The typical format involved an initial introduction to the product, followed by questions and discussion. Usually the product was introduced by one of the explorers who had an Alexa at home.
The discussions then segued into a brainstorming session about what the explorers would ideally like Alexa to be able to do. Sometimes the things they wanted are things Alexa can already do. Sometimes, they were ideas for potential future skills.
Instead of calling these ideas out separately in this section, we have added them into the lists of AI capabilities in the section above on AI, Robots, and Smarthomes.
If you want to dig deeper into the color and details surrounding explorers' suggestions for potential additional Alexa skills, you will find the Alexa-specific discussions attached to our exploration on Alexa and the Amazon Echo.
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