Exclusive: Could this AI device keep older people independent ­ – and connected – in their own homes?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is variously portrayed as a potential boon to mankind… or disruptive and destructive. A small collaborative group, including AAA members Easiphones and AAA chair, Tony Watts OBE, are looking to harness it as a force for good for older people living alone… and avoid the perils of technology edging out the human touch.

Nobody reading this will need telling that we face some major health and care challenges in the UK. As social care budgets dwindle in real terms, making it harder and harder to qualify, some 1.6 million people aged 65+ currently have unmet needs for care and support, according to Age UK

That’s compounded by the fact that 3.3 million people in England and Wales, aged 65 and over, are living alone. That puts huge pressure on many of the nation’s 4.9 million informal carers.

Many older people in their own homes don’t even have the luxury of a family member or friend living close by. The result is isolation on a disturbing scale. In a typical week, almost 2.6 million people aged 65 and over speak to three or fewer people they know, with over 225,000 often going a week without speaking to anyone at all

Added to that, we have the huge issue of older people being stranded in hospital and who can’t return to their homes: over the winter of 2022/23, between 13,000 and 14,000 patients on any given day.

The message is clear. We have a problem around later life isolation in this country. We have a problem of the health issues that loneliness and isolation lead to. We have a problem of disconnected families being able to keep in touch. And we have a problem around meeting people’s care needs in their own home, to allow them to continue living there safely and independently.

In many instances, all of these factors are intertwined.

So can AI – which is variously heralded as the technology which will unleash humanity’s potential or the one that will destroy society as we know it – provide an answer?

That’s the challenge a small group of us based in and around Bath have been working on – and we think there is a way forward.

Picture this…

The picture you can see above this story is the “user interface” of “Familia”, a very clever development by a leading Bath-based software and app developer called Rocketmakers.

Think “ChatBot”… but on steroids.

It has not only scraped enough data off the Internet to be a font of all knowledge on anything you choose, but it can share that with you as part of a rationale, two-way conversation. It can even adopt various personae – from Barack Obama to Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, as well as adopt their speech, views and experiences.

If you’re interested in fly fishing it will chat to you about that… or about football, Roman history or the late Shakespeare plays.

In other words, it’s a ChatBot with a personality, an infinite range of personal interests… and a back story.

But could this be a technology that could help alleviate loneliness among older people? For starters, it has enormous potential as a way for those living on their own to chat – on whatever topic they wanted, whenever they wanted.

More than that, the interface is designed in such a simple and intuitive way that it can break down the conventional barriers around digital technology. And we can potentially load as many apps as we want on one device – including telephony and video calls.

So then it doesn’t just talk with you. It can keep family and friends in touch via video calling and messaging. Family members can post videos and pictures of the family to you.

Because it’s “app based”, and linked to the Internet, you could watch exercise videos, listen to any digital radio station in the world or the sounds of the 60s.

And… it would be possible to load health and wellbeing monitoring apps on here too. So this one device, sat on the table in an older person’s home, could be their one-stop connection to the outside world. Critically, technology is being used to enable as well as complement human interactions… not to replace them.

Tackling isolation

Before we included the product to the market, we first wanted to conduct a “reality check” with ordinary older people and their families to gauge their feelings about how technology might improve lives, and whether it might be a “step too far”. A survey that we launched in last month’s AAA newsletter invited people to take part – and hundreds from all around the country did just that.

So what did we find? We certainly confirmed previous research on isolation. To begin with, some 44% of the older people living alone that replied had received either just or one or two visitors in the last week. A disturbing 16% – that’s one in six – had seen no one.

However, 34% had received a video call… a technology that is simple to operate and more emotionally rewarding to take part in than a straight voice call.

When we asked about what would encourage them to use a more sophisticated device, 96% said “ease of use”. The other 4% said “someone to show me how to use it.”

There’s no reason why we will be pushing at an impenetrable digital barrier if we offer a product that is:          

• Simple to use.

• Can encourage people to talk and keep mentally active.

• Enables friends and family members to keep in touch.

• Would allow health and care providers to monitor their wellbeing.

• Didn’t cost the Earth.

So here is Familia. Other companies around the world are now entering this space, but we think that what we have here is a bit different.

The next stage is working with a group of older people in Bath to test drive it and come back with their reactions and suggestions. But by the Autumn we should have a product to launch to the public. In between, we are keen to have conversations with people in the housing, health and care sectors and look for synergies.

Get in touch if you’d like to talk or find out more! Email: tony@familia.co

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