How AI Helps Elders Combat Loneliness (or scares the crap out of them)

by | Dec 5, 2017

I recently had the opportunity at a conference on aging to see some of the most advanced ideas for how we, as a species, intend to deal with the impending tsunami of older people who need specialized care. One of the most common problems to overcome, and the one I personally fear the most, is the isolation and loneliness so common with elders. Naturally, many of the innovations I saw addressed companionship, and most of those did so by applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology.

AI has been around a long time, but stunning advances in computing power have resulted in marvelous AI powered inventions like self-driving cars and the Amazon Echo. And we ain’t seen nothing yet!

AI can be a bit daunting. Earlier this year, brilliant entrepreneur Elon Musk of Tesla fame suggested the technology poses an even greater risk to the world than a nuclear conflagration with North Korea. Yowza! Let’s hope he’s wrong, but at least two of the AI creations I saw at the conference were downright creepy.

One, the ElliQ seen in this promo video, looks entirely space-aged, but was given just enough natural movement to make it appear alive. That’s weird enough, but the product tagline, “The gizmo that gets you,” is over the top. Please. Who came up with that piece of brilliance? Have they not seen the liquid metal T-1000 AI robot chasing down Arnold in The Terminator?

That’s just what I need…an AI robot coming to get me, indefatigably pursuing until it corners me and gets snarky over whether I want to play bridge or not. This is a hellish nightmare in the works — a peevish, nuclear powered nag with no off switch.

In the other, the designers sought to give the device, which is supposed to become a beloved companion to an older person, a friendly face and persona, kind of like the Chucky doll from the Child’s Play horror film series before it went rogue. Yikes!

Please understand: If I were to wake up and find one of these damn things looking at me and saying, “Hi there Brant. Are we going to have a nice day today…or not?” I would totally freak, pee in my Depends, and burn rubber on my wheelchair trying to escape before it transferred its evil soul to my body. I suspect Elon Musk would agree.

Here’s an idea, all you AI techno-nerds — use your superskills to help older folks own a real companion that is never spooky. They’re called pets. I can envision a playful Alexa skill that tells me what my dog is thinking. That would be fun! I might even want to know what my cat is thinking, but then maybe not, because I suspect my cat just wants to kill me.

Ok…that’s creepy.

Here’s another idea. How about an inexpensive robot that walks my dog? I searched for one on Google and was amazed to find no one has built one. Ford played with the idea, but apparently not seriously. My own poor man’s sketch of one is shown below. Such a robot wouldn’t need to find its way from Brownsville, Texas to Poughkeepsie through rush hour traffic — it just needs to go around the block a time or two, or down to the park and back. A contraption like this would help millions of seniors who are incapable of walking their dog to otherwise own one. What a wonderful thing to offer!

Of course, there is the poop problem, but nothing an ambitious robot designer can’t solve with a good “shit detection and containment module.” Just don’t let it loose in Washington DC, where I live, or it will surely go haywire.


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