In Greek myth, Tithonos, prince of Troy, had an enviable life for a while. He was taken as the lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn. Things were going so well that Eos begged Zeus to grant immortality to Tithonos. And Zeus did – with a catch. Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonos lived forever, but was condemned, like the rest of us, to continually waste away, getting older and less functional with each year.
Our own society is obsessed with retaining youth as long as possible. Chemical, biological, and mechanical technologies abound to make us seem younger longer. Even some electronic technologies have entered this market. But the designers of digital tech could make an enormous difference in our lives by working to facilitate and improve our most advanced years, rather than pretend that we can just leap from youth to immortality.
I understand that Peter Thiel and Larry Ellison have decided to live forever and have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to support the effort.1 Prolonging 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 memorably reminded us in a 2014 Atlantic cover story, “But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
When will Big Tech build the things we need to make our lives better as we age?
While healthy life extensions may be the realm of the wealthy few, the rest of us can currently expect a time of bodily incapacity, reduced mental acuity, and in many cases, debilitating loneliness in our seventies, eighties and beyond. It is quite possible that those tech billionaires could succeed in extending life, but the extension only prolongs this difficult period in people’s lives, or pushes it back two or three decades, so that we have a healthy 70s and an alive-but-miserable existence at 110. Emanuel shows the statistics demonstrating that while our lifespans have increased, so have the numbers of years of disability at the end of our lives.
There are excellent reasons to invest in fashionable accessories that become the core of teenage life, to invest in tools that allow businesses to be more productive and responsive, and to invest in the basic functionality for everyone’s day. But, although the underlying current technology of AI, vocal interfacing, and connectivity is beautifully suited to assisting the elderly, this vital task is not provided the serious research and product investment that it deserves.
Older people who are not digital natives often have trouble understanding the newest tools or incorporating tech into their lives. But I propose that this is a usability and interface issue caused by engineers caring more about elegant code than they care about making their tech intuitive to operate. Creating useful and life-saving tech for octogenarians will take more than large size number keys and a monthly plan from Walmart. It demands a study of how the elderly can performed needed functions, and the willingness to accommodate those needs.
I am not suggesting that human care can be replaced with machine care. However, machines can easily supplement human care, and can help people who either do not have all the human caretaker time they need or who desire to be more independent from people than failing bodies or memories will allow. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that less than 15 years from now people over 65 will outnumber children under eighteen for the first time in this country. Demographic trends – such as living longer, increased divorce rates and having fewer children – point to the inevitability of a crisis in eldercare. Tech can help.
It has already begun, as wearables and virtual assistants can hold specialized software to meet the needs of older users. Smart watches can collect heart rates, brain waves and muscle bio-signals to provide information on chronic conditions, and more than eighty percent of seniors have at least one chronic condition. The watches can also serve as medical alert devices, calling help when needed. Wearable glucose monitors link with cell phones to help manage diabetes. GPS trackers can be places in shoes or worn around the neck. Hearing aids are now internet connected. 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 personalizes itself to the changing needs of its user. All of this technology exists right now. We can build tech that anticipates needs, knows routines, makes suggestions and keeps track of important activities. Why is there not more of this tech to assist people as their bodies and memories fade? This should be a societal priority and if it becomes a business priority it will generate extraordinary revenues.
One of the most serious problem of old age is loneliness, as people outlive their friends and partners and people drift away. According to a recent New Yorker article, “Research from the A.A.R.P. and Stanford University has found that social isolation adds nearly seven billion dollars a year to the total cost of Medicare, in part because isolated people show up to the hospital sicker and stay longer. Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine advised health-care providers to start periodically screening older patients for loneliness, though physicians were given no clear instructions on how to move forward once loneliness had been diagnosed. Several recent meta-studies have found that common interventions, like formal buddy programs, are often ineffective.” The article noted the success of a program to provide robot cats and dogs to older people living alone. The robots relieved boredom and gave the seniors a sense of positive interaction when no one else was there. As of this writing, social services aging departments in 21 states have given out more than 20,000 robot pets to elderly residents.
The New Yorker author does not shy away from the potential negative consequences of successfully creating elder-care robots, including, “Some critics fear that, as social robots improve, they will be used as a means of care rationing—and that insisting on human company, at personal or family or communal expense, will be seen as a kind of indulgence.” But there are downsides and problems with every revolution, and a revolution in the technology of elder care is likely to solve more problems than it creates. And, whether we approve or not, some older people will prefer their robot pets to many forms of human interaction. Why not give them the option?
We all have fears of what life will be like for us as we grow old. Even those who are certain that paradise waits after death fear the loss of capabilities that can precede their passing. Everything we fear, from burdening our loved ones to suffering an emergency with no help, can be ameliorated with well-planned technology. It is time for a worldwide project to develop these tools.
1 I also understand that many people who know them well would rather die young that be forced to live 200 years with Peter Thiel or Larry Ellison.