In Greek myth, Tithonus, Prince of Troy, had an enviable life for a time. He was adopted as the lover of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Things are going so well that Eos pleaded with Zeus to grant Tithonos immortality. And Zeus did it – with a catch. Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonos lived forever but, like the rest of us, was doomed to constantly wither, to get older and less functional with each passing year.
Our own society is obsessed with keeping the youth as long as possible. Chemical, biological and mechanical technologies keep us looking younger for longer. Even some electronic technologies have entered this market. But digital technology designers could transform our lives tremendously by working to ease and improve our most advanced years instead of pretending we can simply jump from youth to immortality.
I understand that Peter Thiel and Larry Ellison chose to live forever and invested hundreds of millions of dollars to support the effort.1 Extending life can be an admirable goal, but what about investing to improve the last 20 years of a normal person’s life?
While death is a loss, Doctor Ezekiel Emanuel reminded us vividly of it in a 2014 Atlantic cover story“But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to oppose: Living too long is also a loss. It causes many of us, if not disabled, to falter and deteriorate, a condition that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless disadvantaged. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society and the world. It changes the way people experience us, relate to us and, most importantly, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vivid and committed, but as weak, ineffective, even pathetic. ”
When will big tech develop the things we need to make our lives better as we age?
While healthy life extensions can be the realm of the rich few, the rest of us right now await a period of physical incapacity, reduced mental acuity, and in many cases debilitating loneliness in our seventies, eighties, and beyond. It is entirely possible that these tech billionaires will manage to prolong life, but prolonging only prolongs this difficult period in people’s lives or postpones it for two or three decades, leaving us with a healthy 70s and a living but miserable one Living at 110. Emanuel shows the statistics that show that our life expectancy has increased, but also the number of years of disability at the end of our lives.
There are good reasons to invest in stylish accessories that are becoming the core of teenage life, tools that make businesses more productive and responsive, and basic everyday functionality. But while the underlying current technology of AI, voice interface, and connectivity are great at helping the elderly, this important task does not get the serious research and product investment it deserves.
Older people who are not digital natives often struggle to understand the latest tools or to incorporate technology into their lives. But I suggest that this is a usability and interface problem caused by engineers who care more about elegant code than intuitive use of their technology. Developing useful and life-saving technology for the eighty-year-old takes more than big number keys and a monthly plan from Walmart. It requires a study of how older people can perform needed functions and a willingness to meet those needs.
I am not suggesting that human care can be replaced by machine care. However, machines can easily complement human care and help people who either do not have all the time for the human care they need, or who want to be more independent from humans than their failing bodies or memories allow. The US Census Bureau predicts that in less than 15 years, people over 65 will outnumber children under 18 in this country for the first time. Demographic trends – such as longer lives, higher divorce rates, and fewer children – indicate the inevitability of a crisis in elderly care. Technology can help.
It has already started as wearables and virtual assistants can hold special software to meet the needs of older users. Smartwatches can track heart rates, brain waves, and muscle biosignals to provide information about chronic conditions, and more than eighty percent of seniors have at least one chronic condition. The watches can also serve as medical warning devices and call for help when needed. Portable glucose monitors are connected to cell phones to help control diabetes. GPS trackers can be worn in shoes or around the neck. Hearing aids are now connected to the internet. However, all of these technologies are expensive and few are particularly easy to use.
We should be able to combine voice activation with a machine learning program that adapts to the changing needs of its users. All of this technology exists now. We can develop technologies that anticipate needs, know routines, make suggestions, and track key activities. Why isn’t there more of this technology to help people when their bodies and memories are fading? This should be a social priority and when it becomes a business priority it will generate extraordinary revenue.
One of the most serious problems of old age is loneliness as people outlive their friends and partners and people drift away. According to a recent one New York article, “Research from AARP and Stanford University found that social isolation increases the total cost of Medicare by nearly $ 7 billion annually, in part because isolated people come to hospital sicker and stay longer. Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine advised health care providers to regularly screen elderly patients for loneliness, although doctors were not given clear instructions on how to proceed after they were diagnosed with loneliness. Several recent meta-studies have found that common interventions such as formal buddy programs are often ineffective. ”The article mentioned the success of a program to provide robotic cats and dogs to elderly people living alone. The robots alleviated the boredom and made the seniors a sense of positive interaction when no one else was around. As of this writing, social services aging departments in 21 states have given out more than 20,000 robotic pets to elderly residents.
The New York-based author does not shy away from the potential negative consequences of successful development of robots for elderly care, including: “Some critics fear that social robots, when they improve, will be used as a means of care rationing – on human society , at personal or family or community expense, is seen as a kind of enjoyment. ”But any revolution has drawbacks and problems, and a revolution in elderly care technology is likely to solve more problems than it creates. And, whether we agree or not, some elderly people will prefer their robotic pets to many forms of human interaction. Why don’t you give them the opportunity?
We all fear what life will be like for us when we get old. Even those who are certain that paradise awaits after death fear the loss of skills that may precede their death. Anything we fear, from the stress of our loved ones to experiencing an unaided emergency, can be mitigated with well-planned technology. It is time for a global project to develop these tools.
1 I also understand that many people they know well would rather die young to live with Peter Thiel or Larry Ellison for 200 years.