In Greek myth, Tithonos, prince of Troy, had an enviable life for some time. He was taken as the lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn. Things go so well that Eos begs Zeus to grant Tithonos immortality. And Zeus did it – with a catch. Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonos lived forever, but was doomed, like the rest of us, to continually wither away, grow old, and become less functional from year to year.
Our own society is obsessed with retaining young people for as long as possible. Chemical, biological and mechanical technologies abound to make us look younger for longer. Even some electronic technologies have entered this market. But the designers of digital technology could make a huge difference in our lives by working to facilitate and improve our most advanced years, rather than pretending that we can just move 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 Extending life can be an admirable goal, but what about investing to improve the last 20 years of a normal person’s life?
As death is a loss, Doctor Ezekiel Emanuel has reminded us in a memorable way in a blanket of the Atlantic in 2014, “But here’s a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: Living too long is a loss too. This makes many of us, if not disabled, then failing and declining, a condition which may not be worse than death but which is private nonetheless. It robs us of our creativity and our ability to contribute to work, to society, to the world. It transforms the way people perceive us, relate to us and, more importantly, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged, but as weak, ineffective, even pathetic. ”
When will Big Tech build the things we need to improve our lives as we age?
While healthy life extensions may be the domain of the wealthy few, the rest of us can currently expect a period of physical disability, reduced mental acuity and, in many cases, loneliness. debilitating in our seventies, eighties and beyond. It’s entirely possible that these tech billionaires will be successful in extending life, but the extension only prolongs this difficult time in people’s lives, or pushes it back for two or three decades, so that we have years. 70 in good health and a lively but miserable existence. to 110. Emanuel shows statistics showing that while our lifespans have increased, the number of years of disability at the end of our life has also increased.
There are great reasons to invest in trendy accessories that become the heart of teens’ lives, to invest in tools that enable businesses to be more productive and responsive, and to invest in functionality. basic for everyone’s day. But, while the current underlying technology of AI, voice interfacing and connectivity is ideally suited to assisting the elderly, this vital task does not benefit from the serious research and investment that it does. she deserves.
Older people who are not digital natives often struggle to understand the latest tools or to integrate technology into their lives. But I suggest that this is a usability and interface issue caused by engineers who care more about sleek code than making their technology intuitive to use. Creating useful and life-saving technology for octogenarians will require more than large number keys and a monthly plan from Walmart. It requires a study of how older people can perform necessary functions and the willingness to meet those needs.
I’m not suggesting that human healing can be replaced by mechanical healing. However, machines can easily complement human care and can help people who don’t have all the human caretaker time they need, or who want to be more independent of people than a failing body or memories allow. The US Census Bureau predicts that in less than 15 years, people over 65 will outnumber children under 18 for the first time in this country. Demographic trends – such as living longer, increasing divorce rates, and having fewer children – point to the inevitability of a crisis in senior care. Technology can help.
It has already started, as portable devices and virtual assistants may contain specialized software to meet the needs of older users. Smartwatches can collect heart rates, brain waves, and muscle bio-signals to provide information about chronic illnesses, and more than eighty percent of older people have at least one chronic illness. Watches can also serve as medical alert devices, calling for help when needed. Portable blood glucose monitors connect to cell phones to help manage diabetes. GPS trackers can be placed in shoes or worn around the neck. The 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 user. All of this technology exists now. We can create technology that anticipates needs, knows routines, makes suggestions, and tracks important activities. Why isn’t there more of this technology to help people as their bodies and memories fade? It should be a societal priority and if it becomes a business priority it will generate extraordinary income.
One of the most serious problems of old age is loneliness as people outlive their friends and partners and people move away. According to a recent New Yorker article, “Research from AARP and Stanford University has found that social isolation adds nearly $ 7 billion a year to the total cost of Medicare, in part because people who are isolated show up to hospital. sicker and stay longer. Last year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine advised healthcare providers to periodically begin screening older patients for loneliness, although doctors have not been given clear instructions. on how to move forward after being diagnosed with loneliness. Several recent meta-studies have shown that common interventions, such as formal twinning programs, are often ineffective. The article noted the success of a program to provide robot cats and dogs to seniors living alone. The robots relieved boredom and gave the elderly a sense of positive interaction when no one else was around. As of this writing, aging social service departments in 21 states have distributed more than 20,000 robotic pets to elderly residents.
The author of The New Yorker is not concerned about the potential negative consequences of the successful creation of elderly care robots, including: “Some critics are concerned that as social robots improve, they will be used as a means of rationing. care – and companionship, at personal, family or group expense, will be considered a kind of indulgence. But there are drawbacks and problems with every revolution, and a revolution in elderly care technology is likely to solve more problems than it creates. And, whether we approve of it or not, some seniors will prefer their robotic pets to many forms of human interaction. Why not give them the option?
We are all afraid of what life will be like for us as we age. Even those who are certain that Heaven awaits death fear the loss of capacities which may precede their demise. Everything we fear, whether it’s overburdening our loved ones or having an emergency without help, can be improved with well-planned technology. It is time for a global project to develop these tools.
1 I also understand that many people who know them well would rather die young than be forced to live 200 years with Peter Thiel or Larry Ellison.