artificial intelligence used in older populations

Future of aging: Supporting older adults with artificial intelligence

Improving safety, security and social connection needed for healthy living
August 15, 2017

Once a matter of science fiction, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a reality, and could be vital in helping older adults age optimally and thrive at home. But the technical advances that would make this possible bring along other challenges—ranging from financial to ethical—that will require careful consideration and guidance.

To outline the current and future roles of such technology and challenges that lie ahead, researchers examined the emerging AI field and surrounding issues. The study, authored by Texas A&M School of Public Health researchers Deborah Vollmer Dahlke, DrPH, and Regents and Distinguished Professor Marcia Ory, PhD, published in the journal Public Policy and Aging Report, outlined the current role of AI in health care, its growing potential to help the aging population and possible sticking points that could lie ahead.

The AIs most obvious in our daily lives are voice-activated personal assistants (VAPAs) like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google’s Now. VAPAs are already capable of many tasks, and as these capabilities continue to grow, they could take on a larger role in helping older adults, their families and other caregivers.

With nearly one third of the population of non-institutionalized older adults living alone in 2015, with even higher proportions for women over the age of 75, VAPAs could help people with the safety, security and social connections needed for healthy living.

“People with limited mobility or impaired vision could rely on VAPAs to control lighting, read audiobooks or provide medication reminders,” Vollmer Dahlke said. “AI technologies could also help older adults with early stage dementia by answering questions or playing familiar music, which research suggests can help cognitive and emotional well-being.”

VAPAs can also provide a sense of security both for older adults and people with disabilities and for their families and caregivers.

“Falls are often a fear for older people, but in the event of a mishap, they could call out for help and the VAPA could notify friends, neighbors, relatives or even emergency services for assistance,” Ory said. “In addition, VAPAs give families a non-intrusive way of keeping tabs on loved ones without affecting their routines or sense of independence.”

But as VAPAs grow into these roles there will be some potential stumbling blocks to fuller adoption, the foremost of these being concerns about privacy and the potential for misuse of this technology. Many, including famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, have proposed rules and guidelines meant to protect human lives and rights, including privacy. Building on these, Vollmer Dahlke and Ory identified several challenges to future uses of AI in health care.

The first is simply access to the technology. Older adults use the internet already, but there is a cultural and socioeconomic gap in adoption of home broadband, which is needed for VAPAs to work. This gap will need to be addressed for AI health care systems to reach their full potential. In addition, it will be crucial to define the roles and responsibilities for VAPAs, patients and caregivers to ensure that these tools are used most effectively and are better aligned to people’s needs and backgrounds.

Another challenge is balancing the technology’s benefits with privacy rights. VAPAs are always listening, and with about 24.5 million units predicted to be sold in 2017, the potential for a privacy breach is significant and growing. To increase the level of privacy and security, technologies to protect privacy will need to improve, as will policies and agreements between users and providers.

Lastly, changes will need to come to the way computer applications for medical purposes are viewed when it comes to insurance payments. Insurers have been reluctant to pay for apps because they process information rather than providing a medical service, but as new technologies start doing tasks typically performed by medical professionals, there will be increasing pressure to make apps reimbursable.

“Current and future AI technologies hold the promise to support older adults and improve aging, but to be fully effective they need to be easy to use, safe and affordable,” Vollmer Dahlke said. “This will take an interdisciplinary approach that involves everyone from computer scientists and gerontologists to public health researchers and legal experts.”

“With the right combination of factors, AI could help older adults by supporting wellness and social engagement to help them age optimally,” Ory said.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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