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Emergence of Smart Speakers as Virtual Companions for seniors

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How Amazon Alexa, Siri, Google home and Sirona.TV are quickly becoming companions for seniors

As we grow older, the more likely we are to live alone. Recent statistics show that around 28%of persons who are over the age of 65 live alone, while the number of women living alone who are 75 years of age or older increases to 45%.

Living alone as a senior has many challenges, but perhaps the most daunting comes in the inevitable sense of loneliness and isolation many feel, especially those with minimal social interaction. Loneliness may soon lead to depression, lack of initiative, cognitive decline, and decreased physical health.

After losing the companionship of a spouse or adult children who live at a distance, a senior may turn to a pet of some kind to keep them company. Animals can be great friends, and in many cases they help fill the void that’s left when loved ones or close friends depart.

They respond to affection in their own way, they stay close and enjoy being petted or talked to, and they can even provide a form of security in some cases.

The downside to pets, though, is that they require a certain amount of care that can often become difficult for seniors to manage on a continuing basis. Dogs need to be walked, litter boxes must be scooped out, and birdcages or aquariums require regular cleaning. Seniors may eventually find themselves no longer willing or able to keep up with the needs of their pets.

Modern technology now provides seniors with a number of solutions to their loneliness and their need to interact with others, in the form of virtual assistants or companions.

What products providing companionship are available on the market now? How do they work? Are they effective? Where does a television-based solution such as Sirona.TV for seniors fit in?

Perhaps the most familiar products now in the marketplace could be described as virtual assistants. These artificial intelligence-based products learn the likes and dislikes of seniors, they answer questions, and they find relevant information online.

Reaching out through the Internet of Things (IoT), they can respond to commands to turn out lights, start a coffee pot, or operate a washing machine, among many other tasks they can perform.

Virtual assistants are becoming very popular, and their sales are expected to grow significantly over the next few years. According to recent market research, shipments of these products rose to 1.1 billion units in 2019, an increase of 25% over the previous year. By 2023 this number is expected to grow to well over 2.5 billion shipments.

Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, is a familiar example. A voice-activated AI program, it listens to requests, analyzes context, sifts through possible solutions, and integrates with other iPhone functionality to provide responses. Across various platforms, Siri was the most popular virtual assistant last year, holding a 35% share of the global market.

Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa are other popular offerings.

While Echo, Amazon’s smart speaker, is the hardware peripheral that people purchase, Alexa, the software AI assistant, is the star of the show. Remarkably, Alexa’s appeal seems to hinge on the way it’s able to engage users on an emotional level, as seen in many reviews posted to Amazon’s point of purchase page. The importance of interpersonal interaction with AI-driven programs is clearly changing the way in which users view these products.

As human beings, it’s natural for us to anthropomorphize animals, objects, or natural phenomena around us. We attribute human mental states or emotions to everything from squirrels in our backyard to everyday electronic devices.

Amusingly, Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, has said that over 80% of people who purchase his Roomba robot vacuum cleaner give it a name. One customer, when advised to return a defective unit, replied, No, I’m not sending you Rosie.” Angle admitted that he calls his own Roomba “Roswell.”

Robotic AI companions for Seniors

It’s clear that technology is now bridging the gap between digital assistants and more sophisticated virtual companions. Powered by the remarkable potential of AI, products learn from our interactions with them, they detect patterns, and they anticipate our needs before we express them.

The benefits of virtual companions for seniors are easy to see. For those who are living alone at home and missing regular social interaction with family or friends, particularly those for whom a pet is not practical, an AI-powered virtual companion may be a compelling alternative.

Among the emerging technologies entering the marketplace, Sirona.TV for seniors is well situated to meet this growing need. It takes advantage of the most popular device in a senior’s home—the television set—and centralizes many important functions. In addition to interactive features such as social connectivity through video chats, family albums, and virtual doctor visits, Sirona.TV also offers a virtual companion that’s actionable, timely, and personalized.

Unlike Alexa’s reactive operational mode, which responds to questions after hearing a wake word or trigger word, Sirona.TV runs in a proactive mode. When a senior walks in front of it, for example, Sirona detects their presence and activates, offering immediate companionship.

As well as responding to questions, it also spontaneously provides information and suggestions based on learned interests. Seniors begin to connect with Sirona as soon as it appears on their TV, and the interaction can last as long as they wish.

Sirona.tv a digital companion for seniors

Sirona.TV for seniors also uses familiar behavioural science concepts such as nudges and commendations to build a relationship with a senior user. Nudges provide positive and indirect suggestions to influence a person’s behaviour in ways that are non-intrusive and non-directive.

In other words, a nudge is not a shove or a command; it’s a gentle cue to choose, from various options, a specific behaviour that will have a positive outcome for the user.

Reminders that medications are to be taken at a certain time of the day are an example of an effective nudge used by Sirona.TV’s virtual companion. Remarks about a senior’s favourite healthy foods around mealtime might be another.

Sirona.TV likewise incorporates commendations into its interactions with senior users. For example, linked with the functionality that integrates health sensor devices and regular monitoring of vital signs is the companion’s ability to commend the senior for positive results. “Good, I’m happy you’re taking good care of your weight,” Sirona might say, or “Good job, now your blood pressure is down where it should be. Keep up the good work.”

It’s vitally important to the health and well-being of seniors that loneliness and depression are countered when loved ones live at a distance and pets are not a practical alternative. Emerging technologies such as Sirona.TV for seniors and other digital solutions could keep them company in the home and offer a sense of companionship, gentle guidance, and increased attention to health care needs.A Profile of Older Americans: 2017, Administration on Aging, Administration for Community Living, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. link

“Older Adults Reporting Social Isolation or Loneliness Show Poorer Cognitive Function 4 Years Later.” Evidence-Based Nursing, Vol. 17, Issue 2 (2014). link

“Virtual Assistants to Exceed 2.5 Billion Shipments in 2023.” Future source Consulting, 18 December 2019. link:

Futuresource Consulting.

“Roomba creator: Robot doubles need more charisma.” Technology, 19 March 2014. link

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