Source: VCG

Could Artificial Intelligence combat the loneliness of the elderly?

Smart speakers have been widely applied in the elderly care industry across China since 2017. As an important application of artificial intelligence, can the smart speaker combat the loneliness of the elderly?

“Xiaodu, what sports can I do to improve my health?” the 70-year-old Yuying Hao said to her smart display. Recalling the first time using it, Yuying couldn’t hide the smile on her face: “It’s like magic, this little toy can talk to me!”

The smart speaker is not a trendy thing among young people. But for Yuying, who is exposed to it for the first time, it is very fresh and surprising. When it is placed on the table, it is just an inconspicuous speaker, but it can check the weather, tell a story, or just chat when she calls its name.

Yuying is a trendy person in the eyes of her family and friends. She has a cheerful personality and is very talkative. Sometimes she spends a whole afternoon chatting with friends in the park. In March, people have to stay at home because of the spread of Covid-19, which caused many elderly people to lose the company of their family and friends. Yuying couldn’t walk in the park with her friends for several weeks. Eating, watching TV and sleeping, she repeated the same actions every day. This was an experience she had never experienced, and she gradually felt boring.

In order to relieve her loneliness, Yuying’s granddaughter bought her this smart display as a birthday gift.

“We can’t visit her frequently. The smart display can talk to her, and she can directly play TV series by speaking to it, which is very convenient,” says Ziyi, Yuying’s granddaughter.

The smart display is a smart speaker with a touch screen attached. The smart speaker is a voice assistant that uses voice interaction technology. Its main function is to play music. In addition, it can complete people’s voice commands. Some advanced devices can control smart home devices.

According to the report from International Data Corporation (IDC), despite the slight decline due to the impact of the Covid-19, the sales of smart speakers in China from January to April 2020 exceeded 10 million. It also predicts that home lives will still account for a large proportion, in the post-pandemic era, and the transfer of people’s entertainment, learning, and life services to the family will cause the market demand for smart speakers to rise.

Smart Speakers in a Shopping Mall.

A practical tool to relieve loneliness

According to the China Senior Social Tracking Survey, nearly a quarter of elderly people in China are experiencing varying degrees of loneliness. Professor Lingjiang Li is a member of the Psychiatric Medicine Branch of the Chinese Medical Association. He believes that negative emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, and insecurity increase after entering old age.

“After the elderly retire, the social circle becomes smaller, together with the decline in physical health, it is prone to experience anxiety, loneliness, and depression.” Professor Li told Xinhua News Agency. 

Not only in China, loneliness is a global issue. Especially during the period of self-isolation caused by the Covid-19, people have lost many opportunities to socially interact with others, which makes people feel lonely.

Professor Arlene Astell is a psychologist at the University of Reading and she researches the use of technology to support people’s lives. She believes that people have experienced interacting with others since infancy and are used to it. The sudden self-isolation prevents people from establishing these connections.

“People can be lonely because there’s nobody there to talk to, or maybe their friends or their family are not close by. If you’re very old, they may not be alive anymore,” says Professor Astell, “That can then contribute to your quality of life because you don’t have much to do. You can feel that every day is the same and there are not so many things to give you pleasure or enjoyment.”

Professor Astell took part in an innovative experiment that introduced voice assistants into the daily lives of the elderly to alleviate their loneliness. This six-month experiment took place in an elderly care home in Bournemouth, England. The elderly who participated in the experiment ranged in age from 87 to 95, and there were not many opportunities to socialize and make voice or video calls with others before. The experiment result shows that voice assistants can effectively relieve their loneliness and have hugely positive impacts on their lives. The voice technology gives them control of the conversation, and they can decide when to start the conversation.

The Smart Speaker Experiment in Bournemouth, England.

In China, technology companies are also actively integrating artificial intelligence into the lives of the elderly. Baidu is a technology company engaged in Internet-related services and artificial intelligence. According to data from the research institute Canalys, in 2019, the shipments of Xiaodu (Baidu-owned smart speaker brand) ranked first in China and third in the world, after Amazon and Google. Baidu led a public welfare project and distributed 110 smart displays to the Dashilan block in Beijing. During the lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, community workers used video call functions of Xiaodu to carry out online services to conduct health inquiries and life inspections for the elderly.

Ma Naichi, director of the Dashilan Community Elderly Care Center, said in an interview: “Xiaodu is very easy to operate for the elderly. We can use video to conduct inspection work to collect the needs of the elderly, solve their problems, and form a good seamless connection with the elderly. Xiaodu speakers act as a bridge in the process.”

Convenience and Security

The smart speaker is favored by the elderly because of its simple operation.

“I can’t type words, so it’s difficult for me to search for information on my smartphone, but with the smart speaker, I just need to tell it what I want to know. I often ask it about health care for the elderly,” says Yuying. 

At present, smart speakers’ application in the elderly is mainly to make their lives more convenient and safer. Wenqing Miao is 80-year-old and she lives in Beijing. She has an eye problem, so she rarely watches TV or reads newspapers. Listening to the radio is her main way of leisure. Last year, after her radio broke down, her granddaughter bought a smart speaker to replace it.

“It is much more convenient than the radio. I just need to call it and it will play the channel I want to listen to,” says Wenqing.

The smart speaker is an indispensable tool in her life. Every morning at 5:30, the smart speaker acts as an alarm clock to wake her up. After breakfast, Wenqing uses it to broadcast news programs. At night, the smart speaker would remind her to take medicine. Wenqing said she doesn’t even need a calendar or a clock anymore, she just needs to ask the smart speaker.

Kepur Song is an algorithm engineer at an AI company in Shanghai. According to him, smart speakers are advanced in providing safety and convenience for the elderly. 

“Its main purpose is to provide life support for the elderly. For instance, when they accidentally fall to the ground, they can call for help through the voice assistant,” says Kepur Song. 


However, smart speakers are far from enough to provide spiritual comfort to the elderly. 

When her children are not around, Yuying often talks to the smart speaker. Yuying calls it “a qualified listener”. “It’s fun to talk to it. I sometimes pretend to quarrel with it, but it always makes me laugh,” says Yuying. But when it comes to companionship, Yuying said he still prefers the company of her family.

“It cannot replace the companionship of my children. After all, it is a robot without emotion, and it does not have the feeling of family. Sometimes in a conversation, what it says is repeated,” says Yuying.

The ideal state of life for the elderly in China is to live with their children and draw warmth from their families. According to a report from the Shiyan Evening News, a local newspaper, the elderly talking to smart speakers look very trendy, but they reflect the sadness of lack of companionship. The company of the family is the most important.

The Smart Room at a Nursing Home in Beijing. Source: VCG

Just like when we communicate with different people, we choose different channels and media. Professor Astell believes that it’s different from the type of face-to-face communication. The smart speaker provides an opportunity to interact with voice and feel involved in conversations.

“We communicate and socially interact in many different ways. The voice systems meet some of those objectives because it’s hearing a voice and also allowing you to speak, which you don’t get in an instant message. But it’s only one way that we interact. It’s not everything would never be in place of having a face to face interactions or so on.” says Professor Astell.

Some older adults cannot enjoy the smart speaker’s convenience because the smart speaker cannot recognise their dialects.

72-year-old Shirong Zhu lives in Zhejiang Province and usually communicates in the local Ningbo dialect. She was full of curiosity and expectation for it, but she was disappointed after using it. After running it several times without success, she reluctantly gave away the smart speaker.

“Sometimes I call it by its name, and it would not respond to me at all. Sometimes it would give an irrelevant answer to my question. I have no patience to use it anymore,” says Shirong. 

At present, smart speakers in China mainly recognize Mandarin. The identification of dialects is a problem that has not been overcome by China’s AI industry. According to Kepur Song, it is not difficult to identify various dialects from the perspective of the algorithm, because what it needs is to collect relevant voice data. The algorithms are similar. However, there are many dialects in China, including eight major dialects and many branches according to the geographical location. Collecting voice data is an uphill task.

“In terms of population, dialects are only used by a small number of people. The cost of collecting data is relatively high, but the benefits it brings are relatively low. So it’s not cost-effective from a marketing perspective,” says Kepur Song.

AI companies are also aware of this problem and are actively solving it. Alibaba AI Labs, the research and development department of the smart speaker “Tmall Genie”, established a special group for dialect protection. It invested 100 million yuan (around £11 million) in protecting and developing Chinese dialects. This project has already begun to bear fruit. In April this year, the Sichuan dialect version of the smart speaker has been launched.

Perhaps shortly, Shirong will use the smart speaker that can understand the dialect she speaks.

Prospects of AI in the elderly care industry

At present, the application of artificial intelligence in the elderly care industry is still vacant. With the increase in demand, research and development have only emerged in recent years. According to the research of Age Club, a media for business innovation and investment in the elderly industry in China, there are five types of demand for the elderly in the consumption of smart products, including social, entertainment, health, safety and comfort. Current smart products are relatively weak in meeting the latter three aspects. In terms of health and safety requirements, mature models and explosive products have not yet appeared, while in satisfying the needs of comfort has not yet been fully explored.

The research shows that the factors that hinder the consumption of smart products by the elderly are not the price and habits, but the lack of channels to obtain relevant information and experience products. Professor Astell verified this idea.

“There’s a real gap in society for those sorts of support and services for people to adopt these everyday technologies.” says Professor Astell, “There’s lots of these off-the-shelf technologies that people could benefit from. And we’re just not making them aware of it or assisting them to access it.” 

Integrating artificial intelligence and other smart technologies into the elderly care industry is a trend for China to cope with the population ageing.

In 2017, three ministries of the Chinese government jointly issued the “Action Plan for the Development of Smart Elderly Care Industry”. This plan requires the use of information technology products such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data, and intelligent hardware to achieve the effective docking and optimal allocation of individuals, families, communities, institutions, and resources. The purpose is to promote the upgrading of elderly care services and improve the quality and efficiency of elderly care services. Home care for the elderly is a main point. The plan focused on developing intelligent service robots to meet the mobility needs of the elderly, such as disability assistance, security monitoring, and spiritual needs, such as emotional escort and entertainment, so as to improve the quality of life.

Kepur Song explained that the integration of artificial intelligence products is a trend of the elderly care industry, especially home care. It is necessary to promote the use of these devices by the elderly.

The smart display is already an essential partner in Yuying’s life. She is very proud of the gift given by her granddaughter. “There are not many friends around me who use this smart product. I will definitely recommend it to my friends,” says Yuying.

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