Every time I go back home to Spain, I spend a considerable amount of time tuning up my family’s devices. My mom’s Surface is stuck on some big update, my dad’s phone doesn’t have the Weather app that he wants, etc. Technology nowadays is more complicated than it should be, and older generations are not usually well equipped to troubleshoot issues. Nonetheless, most tech companies are working towards a future without complicated user interfaces, a future controlled by natural language commands that even a 5 year old can master. Artificial intelligence is at the center of this future.
This holiday break I went back home with a special purpose, to introduce my family to their first AI. Surely they already had access to a digital assistant on their laptops, but they always thought it was simpler to use keyboard and mouse to launch an app or search for something, than asking Cortana to do it. I don’t blame them, I don’t usually speak to my computer either. I wanted to give them something that was frictionless, so since I work for Amazon, I decided to buy an Echo Dot and I set it up in their kitchen on Christmas Day.
My parents got the hang of it pretty quickly, even with some typical initial struggles like calling “Alexia” instead of “Alexa“, or forgetting to use the wake word altogether. Within minutes after setup, my parents were asking Alexa about the weather for the weekend, to play their favorite music, who is the King of Spain or the prime minister. I watched them in silence, amused when they nodded in approval after Alexa got the answers right.
Someone was even more quiet than me during these initial exchanges with Alexa: my 95 year old grandmother. Her face showed a mix of marvel and disorientation. I asked if she wanted to ask Alexa anything, “say hi or ask for her age“, I encouraged. She looked at me hesitantly, and then said “Alexa, my name is Paquita and I’m 95 years old“. In between laughs from my family, I explained that Alexa was truly good when asked something directly. She tried again, “Alexa, how old am I?” We all started laughing again, including my grandmother, especially when Alexa replied that she had to be between 3 and 100 years old because she was able to speak.
Eventually, she asked Alexa’s age, but it was clear that she didn’t fully understand what kind of questions worked and why. I tried explaining what artificial intelligence was at a high level, but this only confused her further. This got me thinking how amazing Alexa must look to someone like her. My grandmother was born in 1923, when technology at home was mostly reduced to electricity and radio; even today, she still struggles with her mobile feature phone, microwaves or the TV controls. It’s not crazy to think that for someone like her, a little rounded device of the size of a rice packet that talks like a real human is pretty much that: a connection with a real person. This assumption of hers ends up becoming the ultimate test that the technology we build must pass, the true spirit of the Turing test.
The sci-fi world perpetuates the idea that someday we won’t be able to distinguish between a person and a machine. This inspired the tech industry to create an interconnected world, with more and more devices that can be controlled remotely, by voice. However, perfecting voice recognition and providing human-like responses remain as some of our biggest challenges. We are slowly getting there, but we are still far away.
The benefits at the end of the road are invaluable for everyone, but especially for the older population. A truly human-like artificial intelligence would mean an end to the solitude that many of our elders suffer today, it would mean having help to remember important things like medication intake or phone numbers. Coupled with advances in robotics, it would also mean having help to stand up from bed, or to call emergency services after an accidental fall.
According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Census, “8.5 percent of people worldwide (617 million) are aged 65 and over. […] this percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17 percent of the world’s population by 2050 (1.6 billion)”. I cannot imagine what kind of technology will have such a disconcerting effect on me once I’m 95, but one thing is clear, if we don’t want to leave a big part of the population even more out of sync with technology, we need to work hard to make it better and easier to use. Our own future depends on it.
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Photo by Rahul Chakraborty
Originally published at geekonrecord.com on January 14, 2019.