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Biomedicine

Technology's Elder Boom

An aging populace will look increasingly to technology to enhance its quality of life.

I recently had a birthday. It happens every year: I get older. And I’m not the only one. The average age of people in the industrialized countries, China, and India is on the rise. Which means that by 2050-when some projections hold that the world’s population will peak at about nine billion, then start declining-there will not only be far more people, but also proportionately more elderly and fewer young people to care for them. Life expectancy is increasing around the globe, too.

But we won’t have to wait until 2050 to feel the impact. These trends will significantly affect all industrialized nations within 20 years-and profoundly influence the course of technology development even sooner than that. For starters, medicine in general and biotechnology in particular will get skewed more toward the concerns of the elderly. Research on ways to increase mental alacrity, decrease memory loss, suppress cancers, and treat heart disease will intensify.

But information technology, too, will see new application areas. Staying within the medical domain for a moment, demand will rise for wireless sensors embedded within people’s bodies and ad hoc wireless networks that provide early warnings about internal medical problems. Such invited bodily invasions will fare a lot better if there are concomitant improvements in privacy and security as personal information gets shuttled around.

The first likely beneficiaries of such technologies are now in their 40s and 50s. Many of them have spent the last twenty years adopting information technology wholesale, which means they will probably continue to adopt new technologies as they grow older. People will be nostalgic for the information content of their youth, and many will want to learn new things. There’s a surging tide of content out there to satisfy them; in addition to decades of TV shows-and the growing archive of cable TV documentaries-universities are globalizing their reach by offering courses and materials through the Internet. What’s needed are ways to index and search for video, audio, and images that are as simple as the search engines that help us find and understand text documents today. The aging population will provide a big customer base.

This leads us to the more general question of how the economics will work out with so many retirees and so few taxpayers. Technology will continue to be called upon to increase productivity in any way that it can, and to provide part-time work possibilities for the elderly. For instance, elderly people might act as remote quality-control inspectors or security monitors, or even provide high-level remote commands to maintenance or construction robots.

Technology will certainly help alleviate social isolation. People’s demand to continue socializing as they grow less able to travel and visit directly will create new markets for tele-visiting, tele-socializing, and tele-role-playing. Graphics, computer vision, and speech understanding are all components of providing friendly and comfortable immersive experiences. (And anyone who can invent a real-world version of Star Trek’s “holodeck”-a virtual-reality room that conjures any scene or situation from any time or place-will find plenty of elderly customers.)

The desire of the elderly to stay in their homes longer before entering care facilities will present opportunities for robots to tackle physical tasks. In a number of small installations, robots have acted as orderlies, carrying food trays and shuttling laundry carts about. This reduces labor requirements and frees nursing staff to spend more time with patients. Similarly, one can imagine a robotic shopping cart that follows a person in the supermarket, puts itself in the car, and carries the groceries up the steps at home-or a robotic car that gets the really elderly to the supermarket in the first place.

Ultimately, robots might be used to take on some of the more direct aspects of elder care for the infirm. Robotic walkers might help people get into and out of bed or the shower (note to manufacturers: waterproof your robots) and move around their houses. And we might want robots that can get the dishes to and from the dish-cleaning robots (we already have those: they’re called dishwashers). None of these robots is very far beyond what could be demonstrated in the laboratory today for sufficient dollar investments. The question is whether costs will drop and reliability improve in time for the aging baby-boomers.

The bottom line is that as we get older, we are unlikely to return to the “simpler” life of our childhoods, when technology was less pervasive than it is today. Rather, the pressures of demographics and our own predilections are going to lead us to continue to adopt new technologies and new ways of interacting with our machines, and we’ll probably be much happier for it.

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