It is better to make a little robot with square eyes than something that is ‘’almost’’ like a human. This ‘’almost’’ makes a huge difference. Monika Redzisz talks to Cezary Biele and Jarosław Kowalski from the Laboratory of Interactive Technologies at OPI PIB – State Research Institute

-Fantastic!- exclaimed Teresa Wrześniewska, who tested the Google voice assisant at OPI PIB in January 2019, along with six other seniors. It is ideal specifically for us, elderly people having mobility issues, ill, disabled. It was a salvation for us, we would not have to keep asking for help.

-It is an expensive toy for now – adds Ireneusz Wrześniewski, the husband of Teresa Wrześniewska. Not many of us, retirees, have the money. Only the rich can afford these things. For those who really need it, it is a mirage. But we need to talk about it, educate ourselves; most of us will be using these technologies in 10, 20 years.

And what do the people who have performed these tests, think about the invention? Cezary Biele, Jarosław Kowalski and Katarzyna Abramczuk from the Laboratory of Interactive Technologies at OPI PIB were then presenting in Glasgow at the CHI2019 Conference in Glasgow, one of the most important conferences on human-computer interaction. The research was done in collaboration with the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology and the Kobo project (multidisciplinary group of young scientists, researchers, IT professionals and social activists whose key focus is on multiple positive applications of ICT).

Monika Redzisz: Are voice assistants suitable for seniors?

Cezary Biele: It does seem that way. Seven seniors took part in our study, ranging from 64 to 89 years old. Everyone got a Google speaker with a built-in voice assistant which was connected to a few household appliances: a television set, a lamp, a fan. It was enough to issue a command for the assistant to turn a particular device on or off. We were expecting these people to need some time to get familiar with this technology. It came easily to them and they quickly realized it is something just for them.

Why? Because navigating the modern devices with a touch is troublesome for them? I saw many times how elderly people fight with their smartphones and computers, how difficult it is for them to hit the correct button on the telephone screen, to use the keyboard.

C.B.: Yes, for elderly people motility is the biggest barrier. The voice assistant solves this problem. The voice is the most natural communication method. To send a message, it is enough to say: ‘’Send an SMS to Jarek, with a message: ‘ I will be there in fifteen minutes.’’ The voice assistant can play the role of a home helper. We can ask it about anything, and it will answer, using Wikipedia and other Internet resources. For example, it will give us the most important headlines from information services.

Cezary Biele and Jarosław Kowalski

Of course, a certain threat here is the information bubble effect. The system learns on the basis of our choices, we are given the information only from those services that have already been used so there is a danger that our views can crystallize…

Jarosław Kowalski: But there is something else. Elderly people have a feeling today of not being able to keep up with the ever-changing reality around them. Indeed, everyone today, not just seniors, we all complain about the lack of time, despite the fact that technology does things for us in many cases. Everything happens faster than in the past, and there are many more things vying for our attention than twenty years ago, and the time is not expanding at all, it stays the same. The seniors, who already have certain impairments – physical and psychological – would probably prefer their interaction with the world to be slower. One of them said that when he calls a helpline, he feels as though there is a person talking with a machine gun speed on the other side. So he does not understand it, he needs to ask for repetition all the time. When he tells something to Google Assistant, it listens first, then replies slowly, with the speed adjusted to an interlocutor.

And it happens even when a person mumbles or uses archaic expressions?

J.K.: The system understands the natural language well – English, for now. It catches the sense so there is no need to memorize concrete commands; one can just talk like it was another human being. Besides, it learns, adjusts to a specific language of the user.

It has to be pleasant when you wake up to a soothing, familiar, voice instead of an alarm clock.

C.B.: Yes. The assistant can greet us each morning and remind us what day it is, what is the temperature outside, is it worth taking an umbrella with us today, whether there are traffic jams. Or, that today at 2 P.M. we have a doctor’s appointment, and besides all that, it is your daughter’s birthday, so it is time to call her up and wish her happy birthday. And that the time to take our medication is approaching, it is time to leave for a meeting in half an hour. Adding to all that, it will remind us before leaving the house: ‘’Just don’t forget to lock the doors!’’ or ‘’Turn off the gas!’’

It is a kind of a caregiver. And when the caregiver notices that something bad has happened? It will react when an elderly person loses consciousness, faints, falls over?

C.B.: Various functions can be programmed. For example: ‘’If we have no interaction for six hours, call my daughter.’’ Additional devices can be added, e.g. a band which monitors our health, motion sensors in the room which will detect a potential fall, or even a surveillance camera. Everything is possible in a smart house.

And can the voice assistant be seen as something more? Can real human emotions be embedded in the device?

J.K.: Yes, I suppose so. The voice is pleasant, good for a chat. It can be asked to sing a song, tell a joke. We can even have a simple conversation with it. When you compliment it, it will thank you, tell you it’s nice of you to say that. It is a bit like having a companion at home.

Such a companion is able to fill the void that seniors complain so often about?

J.K.: Our seniors were obviously hoping the answer is yes. One of them talked about loneliness a lot. He told us how in some countries elderly people commit crimes more just to get arrested and be among people. I do not know if this is true, but this need is really strong. If these people have no other companionship, the assistant can help a bit. It gives a sense of presence at home. Even when it is a virtual being, it can be asked for a crossword puzzle solution. What is important is hearing the familiar voice.

Technology, as always, is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it makes us stronger, gives us something along the lines of ‘’superpowers,’’ on the other – it weakens us, because it is addictive

Television sets are often turned on in the houses of seniors just so this unbearable silence is not there. But a television set is passive, while the assistant is not only interactive; it is always the same, it always has the same voice. What is more, it always remembers you were complaining of back pain yesterday.

C.B.: Even though the assistant has similar functions to a smartphone, we perceive it dramatically differently, it is an altogether different interaction quality. When we ask it to read a cool story, it is a bit like someone close to us is reading it, another human being – always the same voice, with the possibility of interaction. I see it even with my children who tested the assistant: the daughter was embarrassed she did not know some English word. And it is just a device, just a tool.

Thanks to the fact it speaks and understands, a human being is thrown into a completely diferent psychological setting. Our reactions are much more pronounced. We can also get mad at a smartphone or a computer, but here we move to a state of irritation faster, screaming: ‘’You stupid Google! Why aren’t you getting it?!’’ Obviously, the system is not perfect which can get annoying.

If we can see a human being in this virtual entity so easily, then it can also be easy to get addicted to it.

J.K.: Back in the 90s it was observed that people use technology, even so imperfect from our modern point of view, in social contexts. Everything with which we communicate, we treat socially. These are our reflexes. If we could see it back then then we can imagine how much more powerful it is today when we talk with a virtual being using natural language. It can read our intentions, it replies to us, it discusses things with us!

One of them talked about loneliness a lot. He told us how in some countries elderly people commit crimes more just to get arrested and be among people

Technology, as always, is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it makes us stronger, gives us something along the lines of ‘’superpowers,’’ on the other – it weakens us, because it is addictive. Batteries end and a human feels hopeless. The same happened with smartphones which are keys to our lives, direct our lives. When we listen to immigrants coming to Europe, then it will turn out that the vital piece of technology when fleeing a war-torn country is a cell phone. You do not need to have money, clothes, and even food for some time, but having the phone is essential. To know where you are, to be in touch with friends and acquaintances, companions.

C.B.: When we reach the stage where we are able to have a real, complex conversation, addiction to these devices will undoubtedly be a real danger. We talked about it in reference to children: such an assistant can become something like an imaginary friend. If the relations with it develop, and our relations with real friends are damaged as a result, then it will be bad. The question is: how much will a user get entangled in this system? If it is going to be the main perceptual filter, satisfying the need for contact with others, superseding it, then it will really be a problem.

With seniors, it is different as with respect to kids – they sometimes no longer have an alternative. They are so mobility-impaired, they do not go out of the house. It happens that their friends are no longer here, or they are ill, frail and stuck in their homes. If they have no children and their children are far away in the physical, or psychological sense – then they can get really lonely.

C.B.: In this case, the assistance could really be their only friend. During the tests, our seniors mentioned that they are afraid of addiction, but more in a literal sense. If my entire house is linked up to the Google Home system, then all the functions of home management are dependent on the system. And what if the system breaks down, malfunctions? Besides, the system like that can hamper them, rather than stimulate; you do not have to wake up to turn the light in the room on and off. It is enough to say the words. And movement, even minimal and forced, is vital.

What other remarks did they have?

C.B.: They thought that there should be some feedback. Alexa, for example, has a little circle that shines in the direction of the voice. We know, then, it listens to us, and not to someone else. This is not the case with Google assistant.

What kind of a significance does the visual form of voice assistant have? Wouldn’t it be better if it resembled a human face?

J.K.: In my opinion the fact it is such an abstract thing, a loudspeaker really, helps in treating the assistant as a virtual person. We can easily imagine this person is in another room. It is really difficult to create a robot which would convincingly mimic a human. There is always a sense of artificiality, even the famous Sophia does not look natural. It is better to create a normal little robot with square eyes than something that is ‘’almost’’ like a human; this ‘’almost’’ makes a huge difference.


J.K.: It is a phenomenon known to robot creators and 3D animators. They call it the ‘’uncanny valley’’: if we have a robot or a hero from a cartoon that has a human form, then the brain expects this representation to be 100 percent accurate, flawless: every flaw is immediately picked up on by our mind. We immediately see something is off. For this reason, a loudspeaker which has a completely non-human form can be more effective in creating an impression that the hidden creation is – to some extent – a person.

When will such an assistant become the norm in the homes of Polish retirees?

J.K.: It is already the norm in the States. A considerable fraction of households in America has such devices. We await the Polish version of Google assistant When it appers, we will test the equipment again with a group of elderly people – maybe representing the average Polish person better; they are not necessarily English speakers.

Cezary Biele, Ph.D.Educational background as a psychologist, a psychophysiologist and a biologist, passionate about sociology. He is interested in the role of emotions in human-computer interaction and the influence of technology on social functioning. He is a seasoned expert in basic research and commercial marketing research. He is the Director of the Laboratory of Interactive Technologies at OPI PIB – State Research Institute where – apart from the research linked to AI and smart-home technology – other projects are being implemented, i.e. functioning of people in the virtual reality, children’s safety on the Internet, digital parenting, and persuasiveness of 3D messages. A musician and a cook after hours.

Jarosław Kowalski at OPI PIB, he coordinates the study of systems feasability servicing the Polish science, and researching the influence of digital technologies on society. A sociologist, passionate about the philosophy of technology, occasionally – a psychologist. He took part in studies on the future of reading in the digital age, studied the factors having an influence on the adaptation of intelligent energy production by typical users, co-created the application helping the disabled experience the Arts. In free time, he travels.

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