During the outbreak of coronavirus in all European countries many researchers, health care professionals and policy makers have raised the concern of loneliness experienced by older adults during a time of social distancing. Loneliness, defined as a subjective experience of social isolation, have been considered a major health risk for adults aged 65 and over for a long time. It may not be associated with the extent and quality of social networks from: a person can feel lonely regardless of the amount or quality of social and personal relationships, networks and social structures.
Now when many countries and governments need to adjust legislation to limit the social contacts, experiencing loneliness among older adults has become a more accurate question than ever.
Many sociologists in social media have encouraged technology users regardless of age to minimize physical distancing, not social distancing. Whereas physical distancing is crucial to diminish health consequences during covid-19 pandemic, social distancing can have harmful effects both for the economy and for public health. As an opposite to social distancing, remaining social connected does not necessarily require physical connectedness. Within the help of digital technologies, all of us can remain socially connected.
Or can we?
In the BCONNECT@Home projectwe have investigated the association between the usage of digital mobile technology and social connectedness with a survey including 121 respondents aged 55 and 74 in Sweden. The survey was designed to analyse the connection between digital mobile practices conducted with a smart phone and social connectedness within three dimensions: connectedness with personal relationships, connectedness with community and connectedness with society.
Oldest adults use digital mobile technologies actively in Sweden
Our study support the argument that digital exclusion between age groups is diminishing in Sweden. In our analysis, focused on respondents aged between 55 and 74 from Sweden, we found that older adults have adopted digital mobile practices to their daily life to an extensive extent. Nearly all respondents use the smartphone for text messages, but receiving or sending voice or video calls is relatively rare. The differences between the age groups are quite small, which shows that even the oldest adults (aged over 70) are actively online in Sweden. Using the smartphone for gaming is a more frequent activity among younger age groups.
Digital mobile technology enhances connectedness with social community
Digital technologies, and information and communication technologies in particular, are expected to increase or maintain the sense of connectedness. Social connectedness, defined as engagement and belonging to one’s social networks, is often considered as a questions of quality and quantity of social networks. In our study, social connectedness based on subjective evaluation of the feeling of connectedness to others and to a community of neighbourhood.
Results show that the usage of the smartphone for digital mobile practices is positively associated with connectedness with community, and less associated with connectedness with personal relationships and society. Older adults who use their smartphone in a more versatile way report more social activities with community than respondents with less versatile digital activity.
Digital mobile technology can therefore increase connectedness in those activities that include attending with events where many people gather or engaging in cultural activities. During a time of covid-19 pandemic, particularly these activities have been restricted or limited.
Against this finding, ensuring equal opportunities for digital mobile technology use ensures that older adults can remain connected to community that has the possibility to alleviate loneliness.
Social impacts of digital technology use need to be re-considered
During times of uncertainty, the significance of the ability to remain digitally connected increase. In many cases, this digital connectedness have positive effects on social connectedness, but the relationship is not straightforward. This we should keep in mind after returning back to normal circumstances, particularly for those older adults living alone. Evaluating the social impacts of digital technology use need to be continued.
Results are based on a forthcoming manuscript:
Kuoppamäki, S. & Östlund, B. (2020, forthcoming). Digital mobile technology enhancing social connectedness among older adults in Sweden. In: Zhou J., Salvendy G. (eds) Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population. HCII2020 Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Cham: Springer.
Generally, it is often assumed that technology development activities are distinct from the use context. Now we know that, rather than distinct, users are enacted as part of ongoing technology design activities. It are precisely the practices in which engineers are engaged that shape their ideas about future users. This is the finding of our most recent ethnographic study published in the journal Social Studies of Science.
As engineers build and develop new technologies, how do they imagine future users? Considering the rapid progress and development of artificial intelligence and robotics, and growing fears surrounding their impact on future societies, this has become a pertinent question. Ideas about future users can impact how new technologies are designed and implemented in our future societies.
Engineering practices evoke user images
So, how do engineers imagine future users? To answer this question, we joined engineers working in two robot laboratories over a period of 6 months, and observed how they developed their technologies and articulated ideas about future users. What we found is that user images and design activities are related. Engineers develop ideas about possible use scenarios as these ideas are evoked by specific design activities; or – how we call them – ‘image-evoking activities’.
To better understand this phenomenon, we need to look at the detailed work that is done in the laboratories: As engineers go about their everyday work, they engage in different sub-actions, such as writing a software code, testing how codes affects the robot’s movements, or sharing these insights within the online community. Together, these sub-actions form broader activities, each with its own goal. We found four such activities from our observations: to distinguish technology work from other types of work, to expand what is technologically possible, to universalize the applicability of the developed technologies, and to make robots human-like.
With ‘image-evoking’, we mean that each of these activities evoked a set of use scenarios. For example, universalizing applicability caused the engineers to imagine scenarios of users in diverse industries, and making robots human-like came with images of robots replacing humans, in a variety of settings. To think about this breadth and variety of possible use scenarios available to engineers, it may be helpful to envision how these different scenarios form a ‘user image landscape’, with some images far in the background, some blurred and some rather self-evident.
How can this help technology development?
Well, technologies may fail if they do not correspond to the users’ wishes or desires. So, there is a need for suitable user images, to ensure that millions of investments into robotics and artificial intelligence do not go to waste. Our study speaks to this need. Through developing a better understanding of how users are imagined in practice, we are now beginning to learn how and where we can improve these images; and better tailor them to our needs and expectations.
Crucially, our findings suggest that we need to be more aware of the locales in which technologies are constructed. We have shown how ideas about future users are created in engineering practice, and these can have an impact on how future technologies are constructed. This means that the user is created within the laboratory, as part of ongoing design practices. So, if we are to change certain practices or ways of imagining future users, we need to consider that our interventions, like user involvement or participatory design, need to fit into the practical realities in the laboratories. They need to connect to what the engineers’ everyday work looks like.
What are the future roles for robots and humans, based on our study?
In our case, multiple future use scenarios became apparent: robots in different industries, in factories, in hospitals, in care facilities. Robots replacing human work, or parts of what humans do at the moment. These all seem possible future scenarios. However, the impact of robots and increased automatization on our future society is the subject of ongoing debates. Millions of jobs might be threatened, but robots could also function as providing assistance or creating new jobs.
In this context, our study shows that there is a lot to learn by studying the context in which robots are built and created. And it implies that we do have to ask ourselves: What roles do we really want for robots and artificial intelligence to fulfill? Do we want them to replace humans? What are our societal needs? Only if we become clearer about our own desires can robot engineers possibly attend to them.
You found this discussion interesting? Please share your opinion in the comments below, or contact me. I am looking forward to hear your ideas!
Björn Fischer is a PhD student in Technology and Health at KTH in Sweden. His current research focuses on science and technology studies, with a particular interest in engineering and design practices, and the link between technology and use. He is particularly concerned with understanding how technologies can be developed to suit the needs of older people.
The European Commission is funding INBOTS – Inclusive Robotics for a Better Society – with the purpose to create a community hub that can bring together experts to debate and create a responsible research and innovation paradigm for robotics. Work package 6 has the responsibility to find out how to promote acceptance and social uptake among Europeans. The first thing we did was to create a picture of what the uptake and use of robots look like in Europe. With data from Eurostat and best practices collected from the 25 Partners from 12 European countries including public groups and end-suers, legal authorities, businesses, industry, academia and policy makers, see more at: http://inbots.eu/the-consortium/.
So, what do we know about the social uptake of robots in Europe? Well, not much but we know where the gaps and weaknesses are. First statistics is insufficient statistics since it is limited to 15-64 years old and presented at a high aggregated level. This means that children and old people are excluded!
However, the comprehensive social uptake of ICTs, can be expected to also nurture acceptance and social uptake of interactive robots. Today 83% of European citizens and 85% of European households access Internet every day.
When it comes to the uptake in different sectors it is clear that social care, especially to meet the needs and demands from Ageing populations is lagging behind. Industry is at the leading edge, having been involved in robotizing from several decades. Still user acceptance is not optimal. Also, logistics and rescue activities is at the leading edge but have more to with for when it comes to robot-human collaboration. The same goes for education which is a promising area according to the eCraft2Learn project. The use of interacive robots in education activities is proven to improve cognitive skills, social and scientific skills. The barriers for further development are lack of supporting equipemnt such as a curriculum and knowledge among teachers. Interactive robots in health care is on the one hand succesful in terms of rehabilitation and powered exoskeletons to support stroke victims and other disabilities and to assist surgery. On the other hand, looking at social care it is a slow uptake despite of big investments and great expectations. It has to be considered startling that the uptake is so low given the large investments made in research and development, both at European and national level, to meet an aging population. More than 1 billion euros was invested in the previous framework program and continue to do so in Horizon 2020. Why is this?
Well, we can see several explanations. One explanation may be that there is a big difference between implementing technology in industry and in the elderly. In the industry today, according to McKinsey 2017, you can automate almost everything while it is far from obvious in the care sector, it is estimated that about 36% can be automated there. Another explanation may be that elderly care is a sector of low status populated by women who do a good job but far from always well paid. The variation is large in Europe and is related to each country’s welfare policy. There are also other posible explanations and challenges. This is what we are working on now.
We will try to see if we can come up with a helpful strategy on how buisnesses in Europe, already established in robotics, can diversify and broadening their productions and markets to include the public and the social sector. What do you think? Is that possible? How?
Britt Östlund, leader of WP6 and Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, in Stockholm
Among companies, engineers and policy-makers, involving older people in design projects is an intervention of increasing popularity. Our new study just published shows that involving older people is important for engineers and older users, but current practices may miss opportunities. In our study, we reviewed previous design projects that involved older people in design processes, and investigated how this involvement mattered for the design outcome. We found that the most common outcomes of older adults’ involvement were: 1) An increased learning by the designers about older people’s lives and needs. 2) A change in design based on the feedback and comments obtained by older people. 3) An appreciation by the older participants of being part in such technological procedures.
Link with technology acceptance and adoption
Interestingly, though, we did not find any evidence that acceptance and adoption were immediate consequences of user involvement of older people. Acceptance and adoption, however, are often tirelessly proclaimed as the ultimate goals for involving older people: The idea is that, through involvement, technologies could be tailored better to the needs of older people, and thereby achieve a higher acceptance within the older population. Our study shows that, despite involvement, not many of these technologies eventually find their way into the homes of older people. Current practices of involving older people, it seems, have not reached their full potential just yet. But why is that?
As our study indicates, there may be a general underappreciation of the complexities of involving older people. User involvement, as it appeared in our research, is not a linear model where you feed some older people into technology design, and “adoption” or “acceptance” automatically emerge at the other end. Rather, it is an equation that is far more complicated than that, with multiple variables: What roles do the older people play in the process? What images and stereotypes exist about older people? At which level or stage in the design process are they supposed to contribute? For what purposes are they involved? How are they selected in the first place? And, how do designers themselves drive the involvement process? Each variable can take a different value, and the outcome can look drastically different.
How, then, can we reach the full potential of user involvement?
Well, our research suggests that we need to break down the equation of user involvement, and critically examine its terms and parameters. Often, older people are involved as passive receivers of technologies, suffering from physical decay and biomedical ailments. If technologies are to become more appealing to the older population, we might want to question these assumptions, and invert parts of our ways of thinking. Perhaps, we can involve older people differently, in more active roles, at higher levels, and with less stereotypical views. What technologies could be built, then?
Following the findings of our research, we feel optimistic that older people’s involvement remains important for both older technology users and engineers, and believe that we should continue to explore what else it may offer. As we begin to re-define how to include older people in design projects, yet undiscovered technologies may lie just around the corner.
If you found this discussion interesting, and wish to share your opinion: Please feel free to contact me. I am eager to hear your ideas!
Björn Fischer is a PhD student in Technology and Health at KTH in Sweden. His current research focuses on the social study of technology, with a particular interest in engineering and design practices, and user involvement. He is particularly concerned with understanding how technologies can be developed to suit the expectations of older people. Email: email@example.com
We are an interdisciplinary research group bridging our backgrounds in ageing studies, sociology, engineering, psychology and design to understand what it means to be human in the age of digitization and how it affects the design of new technologies.
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