Memory supplement for an ageing population

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2008 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

The demographic predictions of many countries, especially in the developed world, make it clear that the percentage of old people is growing, as is life expectancy, and the relative number of people of working age, who will be able to care for them, is diminishing.

Alongside this trend is a desire of many older people to live independent lives and to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. Living independently, with minimum assistance from other, younger, people, is good for the individual but also puts less strain on family, friends and society. So how can society help to preserve this independence; can technology help old people to remain independent? This is a question that should interest us all, either because we are growing older and can see the need for ourselves or because we may need to help older relatives or friends.

The European Union has recognised this question and set up the “HERMES Cognitive Care for Active Ageing” project, which looks specifically at ways to overcome one of the barriers to independence, that is the reduction in cognitive and memory capability. Before I discuss this project in more detail I would like to suggest that there are other barriers that technology can possibly help with:

  • Mobility: as we age mobility generally reduces. Technology has helped with lifts, mobility buggies, etc. enabling the less mobile to move around the house and travel further afield with nearly as much ease and independence as a younger able-bodied person. But the other answer is to reduce the need for travel. Telecommunications and the Internet have opened up all sorts of possibilities for reducing travel: on-line shopping, on-line services and information, video conferencing and videophones etc. The question is: do/can older people use these technologies? Are they too difficult or ‘frightening’ to use or just too expensive?
  • Monitoring: anyone living alone, but especially the elderly, may suddenly need help. A fall or an illness may mean it is difficult to call for that help. Simple emergency buzzers worn around the neck have provided a level of security and peace of mind both for the person and family and friends. Technology is being considered that could extend that monitoring function by checking for unusual, or lack of, movement inside the house. This will require much more sophisticated technology to be installed in the home at a greater expense; but this should be cost effective if it also provides help with mobility and cognitive independence.

However, it is probably true to say that reduction in cognitive and memory functions is the biggest reason for an old person to have to move from independence in their own home to a more dependent state in a residential home, or with younger relatives. It also appears that this move tends to accelerate the decline once these brain functions are exercised less often.

Again, some available technologies can help. The recent plethora of adverts for ‘mind gyms’ suggests both a demand and simple solutions to keep the mind active. Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) also have a part to play. I certainly consider mine to be a memory enhancer, as long as I still remember to put in the diary dates and update the to-do lists!

The HERMES research project is looking at how technology can extend this much further. The project’s ultimate goal is to build a prototype system that will offer three main services:

  • The first service will help the user remember what happened in the recent past. For example, Alice can ask the system “What did my daughter say to me yesterday when we discussed the snow storm in Montreal?” The system will search its repository of recordings based on the time window and the keywords of the content, and then let Alice choose to play back the relevant conversations recorded in audio or on video.
  • The second service will give the person reminders or prompts to help manage their daily schedule. For example, if George notices that the jar of coffee is almost finished, he can tell the system to add a reminder to buy coffee. The system will connect between the word coffee and the word buy and the local store where George usually shops. When George passes the store and his mobile device notices the store location, the system will remind him to buy coffee using a text to speech synthesis in a natural human voice.
  • The third service provided will be memory fitness exercises based on actual personal experiences. For example, at any given time, the system will have a list of appointments, some from the past and others that are yet to take place. The system can present the appointments and ask the user to organize them by category or quiz the user by asking the exact time for next week’s doctor’s appointment. Another question might be: From the following three appointments which is first, second, and third? These games help jog the user’s memory and are based on actual conversations or experiences that were recorded or entered as appointments.

The HERMES project brings together experts ranging from gerontology to speech processing, and hardware integration to user-centred design to achieve the common goal of cognitively supporting older people. The first stage, a joint effort of the user partners CURE in Austria and INGEMA in Spain, will work on better understanding the memory needs of the elderly through a range of user-centred methods. The technology partners in the consortium, including the IBM Research Lab in Haifa (Israel), Athens Information Technology (Greece), Bradford University (UK) and TXT e-Solutions (Italy) will work to develop the sensory and perceptual technologies.

The HERMES ‘home of the future’ prototype will be equipped with microphones and video cameras to record conversations and experiences at the user’s will. The elderly will be equipped with a mobile device that records conversations, experiences, location coordinates, dates and times outside the home, for example at the doctor’s office, the bank, or with acquaintances. All the information will be stored, processed and analysed to help augment the person’s memory.

As part of the project, experts at the IBM Research Lab in Haifa, Israel are contributing technologies and research for speech transcription (Speech to Text), speaker recognition, voice-based emotion detection, and text-to-speech synthesis.

“With HERMES, our research into multimedia technologies is taking a real leap forward in transforming how people will go about their daily lives,” noted Ron Hoory, manager of speech technologies at the IBM Haifa Research Lab. “The project will enable us to target more complex dynamic environments that demand new innovative approaches. These new approaches can work equally well for business environments, to help analyse telephone calls in a call centre, broadcast news and video, or any scenario where speech is of essence.”

I believe that this research is essential to help the world deal with the ‘grey tsunami’ that is fast approaching many countries. The three year time-scale should enable considerable advances to be made and provide a much better understanding of the needs of the elderly, the acceptability of the technologies and their interfaces, and the cost benefits of such high tech solutions. It is probable that the costs will come down because the technologies can be applied to a much wider audience, including the smaller working population.

Three years is a long time when there is an obvious need to help the current elderly population. I hope that during the period some of the results of the research can be used to make smaller incremental improvements to existing technology.