Voice Assistant and Older Adults Lifestyle

I was recently interviewed via email by Laurie Orlov (Founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch) for a research project on voice assistants and more in general voice-first solutions for aging adults. The project’s goal wasn’t to publish the interview so I decided to publish it with the hope to directly contribute to the ongoing debate.

 1. Your role and the mission of your organization.

My name is Max Mansoubi. I am a former research fellow and lecturer of Methodology of Field Research and General Informatics for Communication Sciences. I have also a solid advanced humanistic studies foundation besides almost three decades of hands-on technology design and development experience. I am the founder and principal consultant at Mansoubi & Associates, a tech startup advisory firm based in the Silicon Valley area. Our business is specialized in assisting startup entrepreneurs, mainly in the AI field, to define, design and implement their products and/or services with a more efficient approach.
2. What is the role (or potential role) of a ‘Voice Assistant’ for the older adult segment?
The answer to the question could vary according to what aspects of the elderly lifestyle are predefined as most relevant and targeted for an AI-powered approach.
As a general rule of thumb, I believe that cognitive aspects of the aging population are at once the most critical and, paradoxically, not sufficiently considered ones by technology designers. Consequently, I see the voice-based Virtual Assistant as a significant step in the right direction of supplementing against the gradual cognitive decline that inevitably accompanies the late years of one’s life.
There are specifically two aspects that could and should be addressed by a well designed Virtual Assistant:
a) ‘Doing more with less’: that is, allowing the aging individual to keep an acceptable level of daily practical viability through a more efficient use of declining cognitive capabilities and knowledge resources: e.g. trigger a pre-planned chain of actions with a single intuitive command,
b) ‘Proactivity’ : that is, offering proactive advisory and, when needed, direct leadership to assist the aging adult to better structure daily life’s time-space framework and related tasks: e.g. prescribed medications administration; daily physical activity; physical space safety and scene management, etc.
3. What is the role of natural language processing and AI in voice-first technologies?
I do believe we should clearly distinguish between NLP/NLU and AI in the context of voice-first technologies. Natural Language Understanding (NLU) is itself based on a sophisticated but narrow AI, and as such it represents a significant step forward in terms of UX flexibility and overall ease of interaction. However, NLU alone does not make smarter a voice-first device. The AI operating behind the surface and its capabilities are the real deal.
4. For the older adult market, why — or why not — could or would voice be ‘First’ as a way to engage with a technology?
Basic voicegesture, and motion are arguably the very last capabilities that an older adult loses over time. That makes them the three long-lasting communication channels that any good targeted technology design has to keep in mind. While voice-first devices are making very interesting advancements, the gesture-control and motion detection solutions are still in their infancy. In the case of aging adults, the voice interactivity alone could turn to be inadequate in a number of cases, particularly as the individual advances in age. That is why a clever integration of voice with other capabilities such as gesture-control and motion detection and identification, is of particular relevance to engage with technology.
5. What older adult settings might leverage this technology — independent homes, family caregiving, senior living communities, or check-in to senior centers?
I strongly maintain that voice-first technologies are serviceable across all the above-mentioned adult settings. Having said that, based on direct observations, I believe the deployment, while implementing the common requirements (aDoing more with less; and bProactivity), should also follow the specific needs of each setting. Here a few examples of customization according to the context:
- Independent home: both ‘a’ and ‘b’ are equally important;
- Family caregiving: ‘b’ would assume higher relevance offering also a sort of coordinating communication channel among family caregivers and aging adults;
  • Senior living community: both ‘a’ and ‘b’ are evenly important but with the added function of intensification and coordination of the relationship with the community.
6. How can this technology serve those with vision, motor skill, or hearing limitations?
I think we need to consider voice-first technologies as part of a larger context that would include multiple cooperating components such as motion detection and interpretation, gesture control, etc., which we can more appropriately characterize as “Ambient Intelligence” (AmI). In such a sentient, self-adapting, inter- and pro-active context, voice user interface (VUI) offers an important reinforcing channel in assisting vision, motor and hearing impaired aging individuals.
7. What are the opportunities for vendors of goods and services and their market of older adults– for example, auto manufacturers, healthcare providers, hotels, travel, other?
All vendors who can offer goods and services directly or indirectly aligned with the above-mentioned aspects of ‘Doing more with less’ and ‘Proactivity’ will have many and increasing — both in number and volume — market opportunities with the older adults.
8. What do you see as the potential for services and products that are (or should) be Voice First (including wearables, in-car technology, common areas and public spaces?
Both wearables and in-car technologies offer excellent use cases for the adoption of voice-first approach. Having said that, I think there is another area that can greatly benefit from the voice innovation. The extensive adoption of the basic “talking traffic lights” across many U.S. cities represent a tangible and significant innovation for the safety of the blind in the public places. We can build upon such a successful experience and start to introduce full-blown AI-powered conversational solutions as part of the overall Smart City implementation. We can think of conversational street boothconversational building directories, and other similar solutions that can help the aging population to live a safer and more participative life in the urban context.
9. What are the limitations of this category and how might they be addressed?
The current main limitation of voice-first technologies is the roughness of the back-end AI. The introduction of Natural Language Understanding (NLU) has indeed significantly increased the flexibility and viability of voice-first approaches. However, the level of intelligence of the overall solution doesn’t yet offer any meaningful disruption in the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) solutions developed back in the 1970s. There is still a huge margin for innovation that will definitely benefit from the overall advancement in AI, particularly of what is known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). New initiatives such as SingularityNET could bring authentic disruption that could have a significant impact on the AI-powered voice-first technologies.
10. If you could request that innovators focus on a particular need or opportunity, what would it be?
There are definitely areas where the smart and innovative entrepreneurs can successfully engage. Here are only a few:
a) The overall back-end AI with a particular attention to the creative opportunities offered by currently expanding Open Source Artificial Intelligence initiatives;
b) The integration of voice with other user interaction channels such as gesture control and motion detection and interpretation.
c) The increase of privacy protection levels by focusing on device-based processing and autonomous AI.
d) The improvement of safety levels by adding emotion detection capabilities to the voice-first solutions (“Compassionate AI”).

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