Loneliness in older people is an issue experienced in many countries across the world. In the UK alone, recent research suggests that around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over feel lonely on a regular basis, while charity Age UK estimates that 3.6 million older people live alone, and 2 million often feel “ignored or invisible”.
The impact is not only felt on individuals’ mental health, either. While loneliness has been found to have a link with increased risk of depression and dementia, it also increases the likelihood of being physically inactive, as well as the chances of visiting a doctor or Accident and Emergency (A&E) hospital department. As a consequence, the UK economy and public services feel the strain, with employers losing £200 million a year when people take time off sick, either when experiencing loneliness themselves or to care for others.
How tech can help ease loneliness
As medicine and healthcare advances, life expectancy increases, the population is ageing, and loneliness in those over retirement age is set to continue. A 2019 report from Vodafone found that technology and interactive products could be used to help those living with loneliness and isolation, with everything from smart wristbands that enable people to live more independently, to personal robots that can act as the eyes and ears of someone not able to leave their home, all being viable and positive uses of tech.
A new project in this area is called Memory Lane; created by Accenture Interactive, the digital and design arm of global consultancy Accenture, alongside Swedish energy supplier Stockholm Exergi, Memory Lane is a prototype for a voice-assisted, artificial intelligence (AI) tool that captures people’s life stories.
Have a “human” conversation
It works by asking the user questions about their life, then using their answers to ask related, intelligent questions to delve deeper into a topic, and hold a conversation in as “human” a way as possible.
It can be used over several days and weeks, remembering what a person has spoken about before, and organising this data into a “memory graph”, which structures people’s memories into chronology and level of importance.
The tool, currently in the testing phase, can then take two routes – either, the structured memories can be handed over to a human biographer or writer, to turn into a piece of prose, or the AI can turn the memories into a written biography itself. In this case, it is turned instantly into a physical book that can be printed, and an audio version in the form of a podcast.
Memory Lane was born out of the fact that Sweden is considered one of the loneliest countries in the world, with over 250,000 people living in its capital, Stockholm, experiencing regular loneliness, many of whom are older people.
Pass down stories to younger generations
Christian Souche, director at Accenture Interactive Innovation Centre, says that the aims were twofold; to enable older people to tell personal, unknown stories and leave them to younger generations of family or friends, and also to tackle feelings of social isolation by allowing them to talk freely.
“Voice is a fantastic channel with which to connect different generations,” he says. “It is super accessible and simple and means anyone can share and save their memories – not only rich or famous people, who can hire someone to write a biography for them. People leave material goods, money and maybe facts about their life when they die, but rarely their full personalities. This is what we want to try to capture.
“A lot of these people are socially isolated and don’t speak to family or friends,” he continues. “It’s easy for older people to have no interaction at all. Something like this could give these people a sense of purpose, and daily goals and objectives. It gives them a motivation to share their thoughts.”
“AI cannot substitute talented humans”
As part of a pilot test, Memory Lane was tested on 10 people aged over 70 in Sweden over a few weeks, and was hooked up to a smart home hub, such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa, in a quiet, resting or eating space in the user’s home. As well as asking direct questions, the AI can also pick up on other “interactions” the person has with the hub in daily life, to help discern their likes, dislikes and other elements of their personalities.
“There is no way an AI writing tool can substitute talented, human biographers,” says Souche. “But we wanted to scale the service and make it accessible to all people, as a good piece of social design. A biographer can make a story even more impactful, but either way this enables people to leave their memories and stories to younger generations.”
Stories being turned into online podcasts
Two of the pilot participants’ stories have now been documented online as part of a podcast on Memory Lane’s website, and Accenture and Stockholm Exergi are currently looking for more people to take part in the project, with the aim of having a monthly podcast.
The AI tool is currently in development and is yet to be commercialised. The two companies have not confirmed when it might go to market, and where and in which form it would be available, but Souche says the aim is to make the software “accessible” rather than “make a lot of money”.