Unintended Insights from the documentary Cyber-Seniors

Cyber-Seniors, currently making the rounds of indie cinemas, is a well-meaning documentary by filmmaker Saffron Cassaday that chronicles the efforts of her siblings and their high school classmates to introduce Toronto seniors to the Internet.

It’s a grandchild’s valentine to the grandparent generation, which is both its charm and its flaw. There’s too much condescension to the “cuteness” of seniors; it would have been far better to see more of what the participants felt from their own point-of-view. Still, it ought to be required viewing by anyone designing technology or offering tech tutorials for older seniors.

Some of the awkward unfamiliarity is a bit surprising, when you consider that if you subtract twenty years, all but the very oldest would likely have encountered computers in their workplaces. Nevertheless, aging itself makes even the most basic of computer tasks difficult; for example, we see a 77-year-old flummoxed by double-clicking.

In truth, we take clicking so for granted, we forget that it’s actually a proprioceptive challenge: The brain must determine and signal how much pressure is required to differentiate clicks, further complicated in the old by compensating for arthritic fingers. Unfortunately, proprioception, like other senses, declines with age, so the “simple” act of clicking becomes akin to mastering chords on a guitar. Similarly, reading on a monitor becomes like trying to find a grey cat in a fog.

Watching Cyber-Seniors, you see clearly that navigating the Internet is a double-whammy for the advanced elderly: It requires both understanding new intellectual concepts and mastering novel movements. The cognitive challenges cannot be underestimated: Many of the participants forget not only their passwords, but their security prompts. When asked, “What is your pet’s name?” one nonagenarian replies, “I don’t have a pet anymore.”

As much as it intends to celebrate the efforts of the young volunteers, the documentary also unintentionally demonstrates that generosity and kindness don’t quite make up for lack of preparation. Some of the cognitive load would have been lightened if the volunteers had a practiced script with well-tested procedures. It would have been extremely helpful for the seniors to have a printout with reminders of the basics, from steps to get on the Web to a box to write down passwords.

Yet in one respect, the seniors caught on fast. The filmmakers encouraged them to produce YouTube videos for a clickbait contest (the videos are still online). When one woman’s video is thumbed down, she asks—with just the right tone of shaming–“Who could dislike something so innocuous?”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bemDf6wuHJ0]

 

JIBO: A new world of robot apps?

Despite its record-breaking crowd-sourced funding, it’s hard not to see social robot JIBO as anything but a novelty appliance without a long-term impact. With its retro-future resemblance to a Videosphere, it just feels like something that will be an upscale must have for a year or two and then, along with ice cream makers and rowing machines, become part of the garage sale circuit.

But there is one aspect that could save it from trend oblivion. JIBO isn’t simply a piece of pre-programmed hardware, but a robot with a full-fledged operating system. Developers are invited to create programs for it—and it is in this respect, as perhaps the first device to allow for the popular creation of robot apps, that JIBO may radically change the adoption of robots. In other words, don’t think of it as a more fully featured Roomba, but as an Android or iOS phone in a more responsive form.

Still, that opens another question: Most of the suggested uses for JIBO, such as delivering messages or giving reminders, could be performed by a phone app. There are, however, some unique features that could increase its usefulness and adoption. Its facial recognition software allows it to tell people apart, while its swiveling head allows it to track individuals as they move about a room. While we remain skeptical about its value as a digital companion, these features could allow it to become an excellent telepresence bot for families concerned about relatives who are aging-in-place.

In addition, it can be trained to recognize voices as well as faces. Given that certain conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, are initially indicated by changes in voice, we can also foresee custom diagnostic apps that could make JIBO a valuable health-monitoring device.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N1Q8oFpX1Y]

Honey, did you forget the Smart Phone?

An insight into the interactions of senior adults and technology comes from a friend whose mother has Alzheimer’s. She cannot remember that the chocolate-bar shaped thing her son carries around is a phone. It remains utterly novel and incomprehensible, especially because it doesn’t have a physical, numeric keypad. The idea of texting is science fiction to her—phones are for talking, but this “phone” doesn’t seem to have a mouth- or ear-piece.

Yet, what it does resemble is a pad of paper. And since this particular phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note, it can perform like one. Thus, with her son’s help, she happily writes notes on it, which he sends off as texts to his father. Now, even when he’s outside or in another part of the house, she can “converse” easily with her husband.

It’s a wonderful piece of enabling technology for both of them, since her condition has left her almost voiceless, and he suffers from age-related hearing loss. Nevertheless, there has been some pushback. Unfortunately for my friend’s father, “Sorry, honey, I forgot to put in my hearing aid,” no longer works as an excuse.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvH6vbhOs6Y]

Telepresence is Priority

The Wall Street Journal asked Marc Agronin, noted geriatric psychiatrist and the author of How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old, what piece of technology he thought would be the biggest help to seniors.

His answer was telepresence, which is already implemented in hospitals and is being experimented with in homes. He rightly cautions that the technology must be adapted to those with “sensory deficits. Such adaptations should include voice activation, easily navigated menus, interactive operators, remote troubleshooting, simple keyboards, sophisticated volume controls and projection, and extra large high definition screens.”

Telepresence is a strange little buzzword. When it comes right down to it, we’re talking about a two-way video monitor mounted on a remote-controlled base, and many of the elements Agronin cites already exist. How hard would it be to download Skype onto a tablet, mount it on a toy car controllable over the Net, and create a reasonably useful telepresence bot for under a grand?

Electrical engineer Jon Bennett is half-way there. He’s long had a website that gives detailed instructions for how to build aR remote-controlled car. He agrees it would be possible to, “hack something inexpensive together,” but cautions,  “It wouldn’t get FDA approval and you wouldn’t be able to sell it to anyone.”

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Way cheaper than a (real) one of these.

Foregoing the commercial medical market, if you have a background in EE or robotics, and would like to check on elderly relatives and their living conditions, it’s something to think about. As Agronin says, “An entire industry of telepresence volunteers and services could be created to serve the exploding population of aging individuals.”