Can tech­nol­ogy make the el­derly less lonely?

The Gov­ern­ment wants tech firms to de­vise smart so­lu­tions

Computer Active (UK) - - Contents -

Ones­tatis­tic more than any other un­der­lines the scale of the lone­li­ness epi­demic in the UK: two-fifths of all older peo­ple (around 3.9 mil­lion) say their tele­vi­sion is their main source of com­pany. That bleak fig­ure came from an Age UK survey in 2014, since when the prob­lem of lone­li­ness has been widely ac­knowl­edged by char­i­ties and pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.

The Gov­ern­ment thinks tech­nol­ogy can help ease the cri­sis. It has launched a com­pe­ti­tion for tech com­pa­nies to of­fer in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions to some of so­ci­ety’s big­gest prob­lems, in­clud­ing chronic lone­li­ness. Each win­ning com­pany will re­ceive up to £500,000 to de­velop their ideas into pro­to­types. The money will come from the £20m Govtech fund, an­nounced by Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May last Novem­ber as a way to en­cour­age pri­vate com­pa­nies to work with the pub­lic sec­tor.

It’s an ad­mirable scheme that might pro­duce de­vices like the Elliq, de­scribed by its creators as an “ac­tive age­ing com­pan­ion”. One of sev­eral ‘so­cial ro­bots’ hop­ing to cap­ture the mar­ket, it re­minds users to take med­i­ca­tion and helps them con­nect to fam­ily mem­bers us­ing video-chat tools. But will that make peo­ple feel less lonely, or leave them feel­ing bossed around? Its ap­pear­ance doesn’t bode well: it looks more like a fu­tur­is­tic bed­side lamp than an af­fa­ble ro­bot.

Friend­lier is the new ver­sion of Sony’s Aibo ro­bot dog (pic­tured be­low left, watch it at www.snipca.com/27845), which the com­pany says has eyes that “sparkle with a clever twinkle”. Sales have been strong since Sony launched it in Ja­pan in Jan­uary, so it’s con­sid­er­ing plac­ing it on US and Chi­nese shelves too. Yet it costs 198,000 yen (around £1,340), which is a lot for some­thing that can’t chase sticks in the park. Man’s best friend? Man’s best waste of money, more like.

Per­haps so­cial media can of­fer so­lace for the lonely. It’s typ­i­cally seen as a lead­ing cause of lone­li­ness, as peo­ple in­creas­ingly swap face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions for emails. But in a survey last year by Gransnet ( www.gransnet.com), a so­cial net­work for the over-50s, 59 per cent of re­spon­dents said so­cial media helped them feel less lonely, while 82 per cent said talk­ing about lone­li­ness was much eas­ier when on­line anony­mously. If that sounds sur­pris­ing, con­sider that 71 per cent of peo­ple said their fam­ily and friends would be “as­ton­ished” to find they felt lonely. There’s a rea­son they call lone­li­ness the silent killer.

The pop­u­lar­ity of so­cial media sug­gests the Govtech money should be spent on net­works that help peo­ple get in touch and meet in per­son, rather than ex­pen­sive de­vices for the home. As well as lone­li­ness, the com­pe­ti­tion is about tack­ling “ru­ral iso­la­tion”, which is a prob­lem too big to be solved by a talk­ing ro­bot that tells you when to pop your pills.

We won’t know for a while which ideas have won. The over­all com­pe­ti­tion is split into five parts, each fo­cus­ing on a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge,

in­clud­ing im­prov­ing coun­cil ser­vices us­ing web-con­nected sen­sors on ve­hi­cles. The lone­li­ness com­pe­ti­tion opens in July, so come au­tumn we may be en­thus­ing about a na­tion­wide project that aims to con­nect peo­ple liv­ing alone.

What­ever emerges, it could save mil­lions of pounds in so­cial care be­cause lone­li­ness can trig­ger ill health. It’s even been linked to in­creased risk of de­men­tia. With stakes this high, let’s hope sen­si­ble, prac­ti­cal ideas are se­lected, not over­priced gim­micks.

Aibo looks cute, but it won’t chase sticks in the park

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