Technology

As part of the consultation on a new strategy for an ageing population, we've invited a range of experts and specialists to write on topics of their choice.  In the following article science and technology journalist Peter Griffin writes about technology and ageing.

“Do not try to live forever; you will not succeed,” the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once advised – before going on to live to the ripe old age of 94.

Despite the best efforts of science and deep-pocketed Silicon Valley magnates, immortality still eludes us. But the exponential nature of change in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and big data will transform the third act of life for many of us over the next two decades.

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We are already living longer, healthier lives thanks to improvements in medicine, living standards and diet. By 2051, 22 percent of Kiwis will be aged 65 or older, up from nine percent in 1996. In that demographic there’ll also be a quarter of a million people aged 85 and up.

A host of social, economic and environmental factors determine the quality of life we will lead as we age. But the current crop of emerging disruptive technologies indicates how technology will both improve our lives and profoundly change them.

Robotic caregivers

Sony AiboVisit a retirement home in Tokyo or Osaka today and you’ll see a glimpse of aged care in the future, where companion robots monitor pensioners’ medicine intake, launch video calls to friends and even offer companionship themselves.

Sony’s Aibo robot dog seems like a cute gimmick, but it and a host of other robots are the first generation of devices being embraced by a country with an ageing population and high acceptance of new technology.

“The world has changed in the last few decades,” says Professor Bruce MacDonald, head of the robotics group at the University of Auckland and co-director of the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge. “There’s a role for robots to help people, to be an intermediary.”

MacDonald and colleagues have been trialling small, digital “healthbots” in the homes of New Zealanders who suffer from respiratory illnesses. The gadgets talk to patients, prompting them to take their medicine and undertake exercises, and check on their status through questionnaires.

Robot carers?

The aim is to prevent rehospitalisation of older patients by helping them stick to treatment regimes. But the healthbots also alleviate loneliness.

“We’ve found that people form relationships with robots really easily,” says MacDonald, who has also trialled companion robots with mild dementia sufferers.

“People have told us not to turn the robot off because it is not fair to the robot. One patient got very upset when we went to take the robot away. He said, ‘Who am I going to talk to?’”

If a person can form that sort of bond with a gadget that looks like a chunky Fisher-Price toy with a screen on its front, imagine what will be possible when robots take on more human-like characteristics and behaviour over the next 20 years.

Japanese robotics researchers are making great strides in developing life-like robots with accurate facial features and expressions, while other groups are forging ahead developing cognitive intelligence for them.

Chatbot technology, such as that used by Auckland company Soul Machines to create virtual customer service assistants that can understand and respond to unstructured language commands, will allow free-form conversation with the next generation of companion robots.

Those robots will also have greater ability to move about the home autonomously as robotic motion and vision improve, and lighter and more functional robotic exoskeleton devices will allow the wearer to stay active and involved in manual work later into life.

Smarter homes

The robots we increasingly live and work with will also interact with our homes, where smart sensors will monitor everything from what is in our fridge to temperature and security. Predictive sensors, the high-tech equivalent of a medical alarm bracelet, will know when someone’s sleeping patterns or the register of their cough suggest they are unwell and in need of medical assistance.

Remote care workers will beam in to check on the elderly via video calls and even holographs. The wearable tech movement will only intensify for ever more accurate and less intrusive monitoring of our health.

Home automation systems will increasingly do the cleaning, cooking and gardening for us, and within a decade, autonomous vehicles will render a driver licence irrelevant.

Personalised medicine

Underpinning the biggest technology-driven changes to life and wellbeing beyond age 65 in the next 20 years will be the rise of personalised medicine. By combining genetic sequencing and testing technology, better medical imaging, preventative healthcare and real-time monitoring of our vital signs, the medical sector will have a much clearer picture of our health and tailor treatments to our specific needs.

That could ultimately have radical consequences for some of the diseases we become more susceptible to as we age, including cancer, heart disease and dementia.

The better integration of biological data and technology will transform healthcare behind the scenes, as information currently sitting in silos will be used in different ways by government departments and private companies to generate insights about us and offer improved services.

Costs and benefits

All of the technologies mentioned above will evolve rapidly over the next two decades, but won’t dictate our lives or replace human interaction to a large degree – unless we let them do so.

Many serious conversations about the safety and ethics of using algorithms and big data tools to predict our future needs and treat us accordingly will need to take place. Sociological research into the impact technology will have on a larger ageing population needs to be undertaken.

Economics will also dictate how equitably access to life-improving technology is distributed across society. Will there still be a universal pension paid out in 20 years’ time? Will our public health system still offer high quality treatment for all? Will a digital divide see some literally plugged into the modern world as they grow older, while others are left out?

We all need to think about what kind of world we want to live in towards the end of our life and harness the best available technologies to make it possible.

Peter Griffin is a Wellington-based science and technology journalist with 20 years’ experience in the New Zealand media covering science, technology, media and business.