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Robots and ageing: a design dilemma

In designing the next generation of products and services to enhance the experience of later life and allow people to live independently for longer, there are two diametrically opposed design approaches that divide opinion.

In one camp are those who believe that tech advances in digital networks, robotics and artificial intelligence will enable human contact and support, which is expensive, to be replaced by intelligent machines; in the other camp are those who believe that design for an ageing society should be all about encouraging more social interaction, not less.

Both camps are fierce in their beliefs, as I discovered when I curated an exhibition at The Design Museum in London entitled New Old at the beginning of this year, which included design examples from both sides of the argument. The show, which was seen by 80,000 visitors during its six-week run, was subtitled ‘design for our future selves’ and featured a range of innovations – six of them special commissions - to show the span of creative possibilities.  

The advocates of tech support for the elderly were given plenty of ammunition in my choice of exhibits. A table-top robotic device called ElliQ, for example, designed by Yves Behar with Intuition Robotics, adopted artificial intelligence to learn and encourage the older adult’s personal goals, acting as a coach, connector and companion when nobody else is there.

A project by Future Facility called Amazin Apartments showed an older person’s care- and maintenance-free apartment serviced from hidden corridors by a technology company, restocking the fridge, washing clothes and controlling temperature and energy use without a human being ever entering the home. 

However in the many visitor and media comments in response to the New Old show, such tech-led innovation was strongly challenged. Many pointed out that the ultimate serviced apartment might prevent people popping down to the local shop for a pint of milk.

Others preferred design solutions that encouraged human contact – Hemingway Design’s Gateshead housing estate that took older people out of their home to interact with neighbours via outdoor communal barbecues and table tennis tables, or Priestman Goode’s redesign of the mobility scooter - the Scooter for Life - that enables grandparents to interact directly with their micro scooter-riding grandchildren by using a flexible new type of vehicle.

What emerged from the entire exercise was a sense of just how complicated the picture has become for designers to create new services for older people. We are on the brink of technological change that could revolutionise elder care, yet we baulk at the idea of a total replacement of human contact with smart machines. It seems we can’t yet make that leap of faith, even though the bill for a social care threatens to cripple the economy.


That reluctance might change in the future. In an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by The Design Museum to accompany the New Old exhibition, a quarter of respondents said they would prefer to be cared for by robots in old age than by humans – and this rises to a third among young people.  This result surprised me – I’d expected fewer to be in favour.

The poll also asked which technologies might be most useful in older age. Driverless cars and remote monitoring sensors in the home topped the list - innovations that replace the chat of cabbies and care assistants with the hum of the machine. Do we want to go the whole hog? Maybe hybrid services that comprise a mix of human and tech support are what’s required. Both sides of the design argument have some way to run.

The Design Museum’s New Old exhibition travels to Poland and Taiwan in autumn 2017. A catalogue from the exhibition is available here

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art and is a Visiting Fellow, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford

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