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Designing AI to aid seniors

Laurier researcher Josephine McMurray explores how artificial intelligence may help Canada’s aging population live independently for longer

Story by Kimberly Elworthy and Karen Kawawada

The mention of artificial intelligence (AI) may conjure up images of television programs like The Jetsons, a space-age cartoon that featured robots and humans living together, with robots responsible for onerous and mundane tasks like house cleaning and taking out the garbage.

That reality may not be as far off as we think.

AI and robotics capabilities are rapidly evolving. One day in the not-too-distant future, AI devices may even be able to help senior citizens with daily chores like bringing in the groceries or bathing at home. But how we design these technologies so they meet the needs of different populations will determine whether or not they are adopted and used to their fullest potential, according to research by Laurier's Josephine McMurray.

“When it comes to health and aging technologies, innovators and entrepreneurs haven’t always been able to see the business model,” says McMurray, an assistant professor in the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics’ Business Technology Management program. “We’re trying to look at what creates a really fertile environment for people to innovate in this area.”

McMurray is researching how intelligent devices can be developed to help the world’s aging population "age in place." And she notes that AI isn’t just about robotics. More and more, AI will be embedded in other technologies to help turn data into useful information.

One of McMurray’s projects is exploring the economics of using AI to identify early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease by mining electronic medical records. Her research also includes working to understand how governments can build supportive environments that encourage innovation, particularly in health and age-related technologies.

Growing seniors population

The number of seniors in Canada is expected to double between 2013 and 2041, when seniors will make up more than 25 per cent of the population. During the same time period, the number of Canadians over 75 is expected to triple and the number of Canadians over 90 is expected to quadruple. The numbers matter considering the fact that annual health-care costs rise from an average of $11,557 per year at age 75 to an average of $20,917 per year for those over 80, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The demographic shift makes the need to innovate urgent, says McMurray, who is a member of the AGE-WELL National Centre of Excellence, a multi-institutional effort to support older adults and caregivers through technological and social innovation.

“Some technologies might seem intuitive for groups such as millennials, but older adults approach the adoption and exploration of technologies very differently,” McMurray says. “This doesn’t mean they’re uninterested in technology, but what it can sometimes translate into is fear around the adoption of technology, being slow in adopting it and using it in ways that weren’t anticipated.”

McMurray and her team meet regularly with groups of seniors such as the “Bits and Bytes” group in Kitchener. She presents her research to the group for feedback, as well insight into their questions about – and struggles with – technology. One interesting insight gained was the impact imposing a gender on an AI robot might have on seniors' willingness to adopt a new technology.

“I presented some photos of different robotics and asked if they would be comfortable with them,” McMurray says. “One robot was an anthropomorphically correct male and one woman wasn’t happy with the idea of that robot helping her in the bathroom.”

How to design AI robots in order to encourage trust is especially important for older adults and a topic McMurray's most recent research paper examines.

“One key message we understood is that developers of intelligent assistive technologies need to be aware of trust as a factor of the technology,” McMurray says. “Because you have large and unprecedented amounts of personal data being collected, this could bring up new ethical, privacy and legal issues. These technologies cannot violate human dignity or personal privacy.”

McMurray’s recent paper examined existing peer-reviewed literature on the topic of trust and intelligent assistive technologies, which she discovered was rarely considered.

“We found that there wasn’t as much research into trust, seniors and intelligent assistive technologies as we expected,” McMurray says. “Trust is often seen as all or nothing, but we have to look at trust as being something that is continuously negotiated.”

McMurray also found that while seniors built relationships with technology over time, there was little consensus about how the technology should look, with developers focused more on functionality.

She says it is critical for research about intelligent assistive technologies to focus on senior populations that could benefit most from using them, as well as how those populations might build trusting relationships with the technologies.

“By using machine learning and predictive algorithms, we may be able to create a much better quality of life for seniors in their homes,” McMurray says. “I think that’s what we all hope for.”