Can Alexa heal society?

by Tom Peterson on 22 November 2017

It is this year's most in-demand gadget, but can Amazon's Alexa do more for society than play music?

Sometimes the greatest designs happen by accident. User experience can be such a precise and data-rich process that we often ignore certain criteria because they may not correlate with the core task at hand. Yet even the world's most advanced, intuitive and powerful companies find that serendipity is as much an ingredient of success as meticulous planning.

Take Alexa for example, it is a multi-purpose wireless speaker that plays your requested music and answers your queries as to what's in the fridge or on the TV. Super-cool, seamlessly helpful, a brilliantly simple device that brings the promise of artificial intelligence into the home. Except we wonder if Alexa's most profound impact won't be on the sophisticated, youngish demographic targeted by the ubiquitous ad campaigns, but their parents and grandparents who seek companionship more than technological wizardry.

According to market researchers at Forrester, only 30 percent of adults age 71 and over are online or own a smartphone. Alexa and the other AI voice-enabled tools can finally achieve what computer designers, code experts and UX teams have so far largely failed to – make technology genuinely user-friendly for the over-70s.

There's no keyboard, no confusing icons and methodologies, no tablet etiquette. You just say something out loud and it happens, or you get a response. Such an exchange, however, doesn't get to the heart of why Alexa could be the 21st century's first truly transformative computer technology for the elderly.

Isolation is one of society's great scourges. It's estimated by Friends of the Elderly charity that the number of older people feeling isolated will rise by 40 percent in a little over a decade - around seven million over 60s will report loneliness in 2030, compared to 5.25 million today. People don't have anyone to talk to, that causes depression which impacts on their health which then places additional burdens on health infrastructure.

What we are seeing (and working on with Age UK) is that voice-activated technology is not as a tool for the hipster middle classes but as a device which can make people feel less lonely, that gives them the ability to talk to someone and receive responses, that prods them with reminders. Yes, the interaction is automated but that doesn't mean it can't be meaningful.

After all, sometimes it's simply the talking to someone in the morning that gets you out of bed. Samaritans volunteers know better than anyone how that innate need for human interaction can be satisfied with just a short conversation.

Perhaps similarly non-judgemental conversations and emotional support can be encouraged through AI. And not just for the elderly but anyone who feels isolated – those suffering depression, who live and work for long periods on their own, who crave human interaction but are unable to find it. Those that need a crutch, a punch-bag, a warm voice, a conversation.

The government has put mental health at the top of its agenda, ploughing more resources into community nursing, out-of-hours care and specialist mental health initiatives. These are admirable solutions but we're living in a digital age in which disruptive thinking is helping to solve some of the most intractable issues of our age. With the press that mental health has received in 2017 and involvement from big influencers like the Royal Family leading to accelerated discussion, there are designers out there primed to launch tech in this space, Woebot for example.

Getting old is one of the biggest problems that governments and stakeholders need to focus their attention on - creating user experiences for artificial technology to fulfil a deeply-held societal need. With an estimated 1.2million lonely older people in England, to programme in certain conversations that go beyond 'What's on TV tonight' or 'Find me a recipe', this technology could bridge the loneliness gap. User design specialists in collaboration with those in mental health and nursing to create systems with a new kind of user experience so that AI can profoundly influence people's lives.

Alexa and its ilk will never replace human interaction – and nor should they be seen as a human replacement. But they can be a valuable supplement and help augment human activity. The onus is on us and those we work with these technologies, to use our insight and intelligence to solve a problem we may all one day face.

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