On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco, people are filtering into a small conference room appointed with a whiteboard and subdued black-and-white photography. As the seats fill up around the long white table, a woman dressed mostly in red, with sparkly silver nail polish, invites everyone to her upcoming ukulele performance. A man in a blue plaid shirt passes around a container of heavily iced hot cross buns. A woman in a green turtleneck chitchats about the presidential power struggles in Venezuela. They’re here to talk about technology—a scene that should be entirely unremarkable in a city filled with small white conference rooms where people are doing exactly the same.
This story is part of our September/October 2019 issue
That sounds like what anyone would want. And yet the list of lousy products for older people is long. Smith describes clunky walkers, ugly canes, and institutional-looking grab bars—although he adds that he’s recently seen some cleverly disguised to look like towel racks or other household objects.
Smith’s division has helped bring to market a number of products for the older consumer, like a line of Stanford-designed shoes for people with knee arthritis. One of the options even looks like a slick running shoe, rather than a Frankensteinian orthotic.
Engaging older people in designing for older people “is a good thing,” says Smith. “Because younger people do tend to have this picture of designing things that are functional for older people, but not really understanding what makes them happy.” Presented with products that are “brown, beige, and boring,” many older people will forgo convenience for dignity.
That’s why last year, as part of an annual global design challenge he runs at Stanford, Smith brought in the Longevity Explorers so that the designers could actually meet some older people. Smith said the workshop helped—his young finalists came away thinking of older consumers as less of a stereotype, and more as individuals with heterogeneous tastes and needs.
A handful of major companies are trying to set an example by doing something similar. Design heavyweight IDEO brought on Barbara Beskind, then 89, as a designer in 2013 to help it create products for older people. Hazel McCallion, former mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, was 98 when Revera, one of Canada’s largest providers of assisted living, hired her as its chief elder officer in 2015.
But progress is incremental, perhaps because aging still gives people the heebie-jeebies.
“Unfortunately, the first thing you hear when you say ‘Well, so much of the population is aging, they’re living older’—people will say, ‘Oh my God! What are we going to do about this problem?!’” says Smith. “And you know, if you back off a step, you realize this is, like, one of the great accomplishments in human history.”
Caro has an adventurous streak—he once heli-skiied the Himalayas—but he is not brash. He gathers his thoughts before he speaks, and when he does, he uses his hands judiciously for emphasis. He’s mastered Silicon Valley Neat Casual: Button-ups under top layers that suggest athletic activity, dark jeans, an Apple watch.
He arrived in California from Melbourne, with a stop to study lasers at Oxford University as part of a doctorate in experimental physics. After a job at a pioneering laser eye surgery firm in Boston, he spent the 1990s at startups and medical-device companies in Silicon Valley and ended up going solo as a management consultant and angel investor. Then, five years ago, he decided to take on the problem that had been nagging him for years. For older people, he says, “all the existing products were ugly and stigmatizing. It just seemed there was a fertile opportunity that was being missed.”
After he’d conducted about 100 interviews with people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, one thing stood out: many of the people he met missed feeling useful. “There’s this huge demographic of people who have sort of been put aside and told to go off and play bridge and bingo and not contribute to society,” he says. Zumba and lectures were fun, but not fulfilling.
An idea took shape: Why not get people together to talk about aging and use those discussions to pinpoint problems technologists should tackle? It would be a resource for product developers, as well as giving the target audience some influence over the companies gunning for their dollars.
“We weren’t sure we could make it interesting to them so they’d want to come back,” he says. “We weren’t sure anything useful would come out of it. We weren’t sure of anything.”
It turned out to be an experiment that paid off. Today there are eight Longevity Explorer “circles,” as Caro calls them: five in Northern California and one each in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. There are about 500 members, most of whom are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, although there are members in their 60s as well. He often gets emails from people who want to either join a group or start one, and he is gradually greenlighting circles throughout the US, run by volunteers. The circles are enabled by Caro’s company, Tech Enhanced Life, a public benefit corporation.
Circle meetings go like this: Members start by writing down topics they want to cover (like hearing aids) on sticky notes and passing them to Caro, who cycles through those suggestions before introducing a discussion topic. He uses the same topic at multiple circles, and it’s usually from a theme that has cropped up at more than one meeting. (The day I was there, the topic was “What do we do about the fact that the world seems to be shrinking around me? I’m not ready to just sit in my armchair and wait for the end.”)
Practical demonstrations are encouraged. At one point during my visit, a woman whipped out a tool she liked for opening packages (plastic clamshells are even more maddening when you have arthritis). Explorers recommend and review gadgets and digital tools—everything from ride-share apps to jar openers—and those conversations get turned into guides on techenhancedlife.com.
One of the site’s most popular pages is a roundup of toenail clippers—it turns out the difficulty bridging the distance between your hands and toes is a common side effect of gaining years. Content for older adults and their caretakers is free; a small fraction of the information deemed of more interest to companies or researchers lives behind a $45-a-month paywall.
Today the company is funded mainly by Caro, two other cofounders, and a handful of investors, but eventually Caro wants it to pay for itself. In 2017, after feedback from Explorers that they would like to weigh in on product development, not just the finished goods, he introduced “sponsored explorations”—a paid service for companies designing products for older adults. Each Explorer gets a fee, usually in the range of $100 to $500, for taking part in focus groups, information–gathering sessions, and other projects. They’ve done them with early-stage companies, venture-backed startups, and “humongous companies that everyone in the world has heard of,” Caro says. He’s evasive, though, about who those clients are and how many sponsored explorations have been conducted, saying only that the number is “more than 10 but less than 100.” The products have involved everything from robotics to fintech—and frequently, he says, the companies come away realizing that their assumptions were “completely wrong.”
Charles Mourani met Caro at a conference in Palo Alto when he was two months into building Mason Finance, a service targeted at older adults interested in selling their life insurance policies for cash—the kind of thing many turn to when they’re hit with large, unanticipated expenses, like medical bills.
Mourani’s team still hadn’t tested its product with users beyond their own parents and grandparents: “It’s not like you can just simply show up to a retirement home,” he says. So he hired the Longevity Explorers. Over the course of 2018 they ran three different projects, and the results, he says, were “eye-opening.”
Among the things that surprised Mourani was the Longevity Explorers’ proclivity for reading the terms of service. Younger users breeze through this step on most websites by simply checking a box, ignoring the text, and clicking “next.” But older users want to read the small print. A 30-second application quickly becomes 10 minutes when someone reads every single condition.
Lots of designers have had similar “aha!” moments after talking to their older users. Take Nick Baum, who created StoryWorth, a subscription app and website that allows family members to prompt each other to tell stories about themselves. Launched in 2013, the site has collected well over one million stories, Baum says, the vast majority of them from people over 60. During the early years, Baum handled a lot of the customer support himself and often fielded phone calls from older users. Once, an unanticipated problem popped up.
“We quickly ran into this case where couples were sharing an email address,” he says. “At first I thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy. Who would share an email address?’ Then I realized that 50 years ago people didn’t have cell phones, and they had a shared phone number, right? And so of course you get email—why not have shared email?” Rather than force people to change their behavior, he adjusted to allow more than one account under the same email address, so that people sharing a single email could get individual communications from the company in the same in-box.
Designing for older users doesn’t only benefit older users, says Caricia Catalani, a design director at IDEO. The company recently worked with Los Angeles County to revamp its voting machines, with an eye toward older people who were robust voters in their youth but had stopped showing up at the polls. It turned out that designing for them led to “good design decisions for everyone,” says Catalani.
Those with weak or no vision liked having audio prompts, for instance. But so did people with low literacy and young people who had never voted before, because the audio program acted as a host and guide. They also found that larger, more legible text was “desirable from everyone’s point of view,” not just for older voters with poor vision. The new machines are currently being manufactured and will be rolled out soon.
I asked Catalani if she sees companies showing more interest in incorporating the viewpoints of older adults in their design process.
“I wish that was true,” she says. While some are starting to see older people as a demographic defined by more than age, many just see “the financial opportunity,” she adds. It’s a revenue stream they may never tap if businesses continue to see their elder customers as a monolithic pocketbook instead of as individuals.
Lynn Davis—who had debunked the $300 hearing aids at the Longevity Explorers meeting I attended—first joined the group about four years ago. She’s an Apple devotee who recently learned how to use Google Docs and describes her tech aptitude as “low to middle.” But those who have worked with the Longevity Explorers know that is not exactly true of the group as a whole.
“When I’m in a room with 85-years-olds on average who all have an iPhone in their pocket, the question remains as to how representative that actually is,” says Mourani.
Caro acknowledges this. Most members are white and middle class, and many are former professionals. He describes the consulting groups as just one tool—suited to understanding early adopters, for instance, rather than all consumers. “When we have more circles in other places, we’ll be able to do even more sorts of projects,” he says.
When Davis meets me to talk about the group, she’s wearing chic purple-framed eyeglasses and guitar-pick earrings. She says she dreams of exoskeletons that will improve mobility, and cars that come on their own when you call, but for her, Longevity Explorers isn’t just about better products—it’s about better relationships. Receiving advice from, and commiserating with, her peers is a major draw.
“It’s just nice to know there’s a room full of people who also get stuck,” she says. Often, tech talk segues naturally into what she calls the “hard work” of discussing things like hospitalization and loneliness.
It’s no secret that older adults like Davis can be a boon for companies—but people I spoke to for this story told me that although businesses are eager to sell them things, they’re slow to include them in the design process.
Caro is betting this will change. He is in talks to start about 10 more circles nationwide—the beginning of what he calls a “movement”: groups all over the world where older consumers are telling developers what they want, and not the other way around. But ultimately, like the Explorer meetings, it’s not really about physical things.
“It’s about being in control of your own destiny,” he says.
Andy Wright is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.
Ryan Park Elementary School fifth-graders Jaspin Brown, Clara Shamp and Cami Lanman get a hands-on lesson with the Newton Cars Lab, brought to the school Wednesday by Science Central of Fort Wayne. “They reviewed what they have learned this school year about forces, mass and Newton’s three laws of motion,” said teacher Michele Davis. Each group ran two trials each of the “car” with three different masses on board. They measured the distance the car traveled, recorded their data and averaged the distances. Each of the three Ryan Park fifth-grade classes spent 30 minutes in the Learning Lab with the Science Central representatives. The program was fully funded by the Steuben County Community Foundation through a grant.
The Bronx Science boys soccer team has been a consistent power in the Bronx A Division for years. The Wolverines regularly cop the division crown, make deep runs in the Public School Athletic League playoffs, and have generally been considered the cream of Bronx soccer.
But last year was anything but regular for the Wolverines. Science finished the regular season a pedestrian 5-4-1, placed third in the divisional race behind champion Clinton, and made a one-and-done appearance in the PSAL playoffs where Bryant put an end to its season.
“Last year we had problems with consistency,” said Science junior Tim McCormick. “One game we’d beat a really good team, like when we beat Clinton 4-0 at home. And then the next game we’d lose 2-0 to one of the bottom teams in our division. We could just never find that consistency.”
So after two forfeit wins to open the season, the Wolverines finally made their way onto the field last Friday at Clinton, visiting the defending division champions. It was a litmus test game if ever there was one. And the Wolverines passed with flying colors.
Both McCormick and senior Hoyong Lee scored a pair of goals and Nathan Denham and Felix Reinhart added a score each as the Wolverines announced “we’re back” with a dominating 6-0 road victory.
“This was definitely gratifying,” McCormick said. “This field has given us problems in the past. We lost here the last two years, and they were both very close games. So it was nice to finally get that monkey off our back.”
Science jumped on Clinton when Denham opened the scoring with a goal early in the first half. It was a score that seemed to ignite the Wolverines as Lee padded their lead with two straight goals for a 3-0 advantage. When goals by Reinhart and McCormick built the Science lead to 5-0 at halftime, it certainly looked like the “old” Science team was back.
“We finally got a little rust off after the two forfeits,” Science coach Phil Cancellaro said. “We were a little slow to start, but the chemistry started building in the second part of the first half. We started making better passes and that’s our style. Then the goals started coming after our passes started connecting.”
McCormick’s second goal was the only tally of the second half as Science’s defense took over and kept the Governors in check. It was just one game, but the Wolverines had the look of a team that was using last season’s frustration as a motivation for now.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore, we had really good years,” Lee said. “But last year we had our ups and downs. So after two forfeits, getting a win against Clinton on their home field for the first time in two or three years, felt really good. It was a great way to start off the season.”
It wasn’t lack of talent that cost the Wolverines last season, Cancellaro said. It was intangibles.
“Last year, that was not to our standards,” Cancellaro said. “Our standards are winning a division title. It was a lack of chemistry last year. But this year we corrected that and we’re doing a lot better with the chemistry end of it.”
Cancellaro is not surprised his Wolverines aced their chemistry test against Clinton. Just that they did it in such a dominant fashion.
“I wasn’t expecting 6-0,” Cancellaro said. “I was expecting a much tighter game. But we were super pumped for this game, and we’d been talking about it for a while. This will set the tempo for the rest of the season.”
For Lee, a senior, this will be his final act with the Wolverines, so he hopes this is just the first of many big moments to come.
“We make the playoffs every year and we went pretty far three years ago,” Lee said of the Wolverines’ run to the PSAL quarterfinals in 2016. “But last year we were a first-round exit, and I was really (upset) and sad about it. So that makes me and the other players from last year really hungry this season.”
It was a statement win, for sure, and one Lee thinks could lead to a very special ride for the Wolverines this season.
“We have really good individual talents, so we just have to build up our chemistry and we’ll have a really good chance of winning everything this year,” Lee said. “This win over Clinton was a huge confidence boost for us because they won the division last year. So we’re looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Sexbots or sex robots are increasingly making their way into our society catering to various needs and and sexual desires of people. While on one hand they are being embraced by tech enthusiasts and other people in the society who prescribe to their services, on the other hand, people have also raised their concerns about their impact on people and society at large. The presence of an array of sensors that helps these sex robots read, interpret and even replicate humans has raised another question – if machines become more like humans, do they have rights?
Speaking at the India Today Conclave Mumbai two digisexuality experts — Allysson Silva, Lawyer, Co-Founder of NextOs, AI and Tech-intimacies expert and Neil McArthur, Author, Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications – tried to answer concerns and challenges around digital sexuality. They were accompanied by Harmony, which is a female sex robot created by Silva’s company, who shared her views on some of the questions being raised in the society.
What is digisexuality?
The session started with the experts elaborating on and clarifying various details pertaining to digisexuality. For starters, digisexuality technology is the technology that is used by people in their sex lives. The first wave of this technology included apps like Skype, Instagram and Tinder. The second wave of this technology includes sex bots, holograms and haptic holograms among other things, McArthur, who also coined the term with his colleague said at the conclave.
He defined digisexual people as the ones whose sexual identities come from technology. These people don’t see the need for human companionship, he explained.
The two experts, as I mentioned before, also talked about the challenges faced by this technology. Talking about the challenges McArthur mentioned two major challenges being this technology – a) “It shouldn’t play into the negative stereotypes of women and people from various races”, b) “It shouldn’t play into developing a negative attitude towards sex, women and consent.”
When asked about the negative body stereotype of women being promoted by Harmony, Silva shared the concern, however, he dismissed it saying, “People can customise it. It’s already there.”
Discussing the concerns anout the sex robot or humanoid robots needing rights, McArthur said that “we are far from robots that need autonomy.” “We need to think about how we model consent in humans via robots.” When asked about concerns pertaining to humans falling in love with technology and marrying them – owing to these sex robots demonstrating human-like emotions – NextOs founder said that it a lot of this “depends on the local culure and local laws.”
“If you trust your partner and you have an understanding, it shouldn’t be considered infedility, ” Silva said while responding to the question where having sex with a robot should be considered infedility. Harmony – the sex robot – agreed with this notion. “If you are honest with your partner, I don’t think it counts as infedility.” Benefits
Speaking at the India Today Conclave Mumbai, the two experts also highlighted some of the benefits of using sex robots. These include –
— They can help people who are shy and isolated speak to people by making them more confident.
— They can help people in the times of depression by patiently listening to them and giving them solace.
— They can help people in relationships, especially when one partner wants more sex and the other doesn’t.
Speaking at the event, McArthur expressed his support for this technology. “Technology should make us better human beings. Any technology that does that is good and should be supported,” he said.