By Julie Pfitzinger, Next Avenue Editor
Keren Etkin, 32, calls herself “a gerontologist by training and a tech enthusiast by nature.” In 2015, Etkin, who lives in Tel Aviv, received a master’s degree in gerontology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and two years later, founded TheGerontechnologist.com. Etkin recently left Intuition Robotics after 3 ½ years, where she worked as a researcher and “robot tamer” and helped develop ElliQ, the social companion robot for older adults.
Etkin is now doing public speaking and working as a consultant to several organizations looking to implement technology for aging populations. She’s also creating additional content for The Gerontechnologist, including video and a podcast.
Next Avenue: Can you define the term ‘gerontechnologist’?
Keren Etkin: Gerontology is a very traditional profession. In recent years, however, with the advent of new technologies, tech solutions for older adults have become a hot button issue in the field. The technologies are increasingly known as “Gerontechnology” or “Age Tech.”
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Although my professional training is in gerontology, technology for the older adults is at the very heart of what I do.
In a post you wrote for TheGerontechnologist.com, you make the case that older adults have great interest in technology and trends. Often, there is a perception that this isn’t true. Where do you think that misconception comes from?
When I wrote “Who Said Older Adults Don’t Like Technology,” my intention was to challenge what is a common misconception.
The belief that older adults aren’t receptive to new tech has several origins.
First, the way older adults are usually depicted in the media is, unfortunately, ageist and not truly representative of that demographic.
Second, we have a tendency, as a society, to associate old age with frailty, sickness and disability, when in fact many older adults still have a healthy and active lifestyle in their seventies and eighties.
Finally, we have to remember that the term ‘older adults’ refers to people sixty-five years and older, which includes baby boomers as well as centenarians. It’s a very heterogeneous population and we can’t put everyone in the same box and assume they all share the same needs and aspirations.
Tell us about ElliQ, the social robot designed by Intuition Robotics. What are the specific ways she can help reduce feelings of loneliness in older adults?
Anyone working with older adults over a prolonged period of time knows that loneliness and social isolation are huge issues with real ramifications for emotional and physical health and well-being.
I first encountered this during my work with nonprofits. So, when Intuition Robotics offered me a position as their in-house gerontologist [and first employee] to help develop a proactive social robot for older adults, I jumped at the opportunity.
Many people have the misconception that ElliQ and other social robots are meant as replacements for real social interaction. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Essentially, ElliQ facilitates easier communication between the user [the older adult] and family members — through text messages, photo sharing and video calls. The fact that she’s voice-activated means that it’s all very intuitive. This leads to better communication with family and friends and helps the user stay engaged in society.
ElliQ can also keep users entertained with curated music and videos, tell them what’s on the news, provide cognitive stimulation and fun with trivia games, offer facts and quotes and fetch information from online resources like any conversational AI [artificial intelligence] agent.
Do you think people are skeptical about the ways social robots can have an impact on the lives of older adults? If so, why, and what would you say to change their minds?
One of the biggest challenges that social robot technology faces today is prejudice.
One place where this isn’t the case is Japan, where people have been taught to think of robots as friendly helpers rather than scary Terminator-type entities. I think that just like any other prejudice, this needs to be addressed consciously, and is part of a broader discussion about the role technology ought to have in our society.
That being said, I find that although people resist social robots by saying that they’re no alternative to human interaction, those same people usually admit they don’t spend enough time with their older relatives. The reality is, many older adults today already rely on a machine to help them feel less alone: their TV.
Personally, I view ElliQ and other products like her as a means of bridging the gap between generations. And having seen this technology in action, I’m a true believer.
Prior to your work with Intuition Robotics, you worked with underprivileged older adults. Can you describe that work? How did that experience help lead you to want to continue to work with an aging population?
I worked in several NGOs [non-governmental organizations] with older adults, some of whom were Holocaust survivors. The main purpose of my work was to provide them with the basic daily needs of adequate nutrition and access to medical services, as well as making sure they got all their rights from the government.
What I found was that loneliness and social isolation were huge issues, and that the most important thing our volunteers provided them with, even more valuable than the material aid, was companionship and human interaction.
That experience led me to continue working with the aging population because I realized just how much impact one person can have if they are in the right place at the right time.
As someone who is quite a bit younger than the demographic you serve, what do you uniquely bring to your role as a gerontologist with expertise in technology?
Since I grew up with technology, it has shaped the way I view the world, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without it or not have access to everything that it has to offer.
I think this is what I bring to the role; tech is such an integral part of my life that I’m unwilling to accept the idea that others simply can’t access it. That, by the way, includes myself. While I’m just thirty-two, I will grow old one day as well — and I’d like to do so in a technological setting.
You live in Tel Aviv. Do you perceive that there are differences in how loneliness and social isolation are manifested among older adults in Israel versus in the United States?
Yes and no. On the one hand, Israel is a very small country, and people usually live fairly close to their family, within driving distance. In the U.S., families can be much farther apart. The long distance can make it challenging for them to meet often, so they may only get to see each other several times a year during the holidays.
On the other hand, because we’re so geographically close here in Israel, there’s an expectation that we’ll see our parents and grandparents more often. And while that does happen, it doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of the aging population.
Everyone is working long hours; Israelis work longer hours than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] average, and most families don’t see each other more than once a week.
Older adults in Israel are not immune to social isolation and loneliness.
In ten years, how will technology help older adults thrive? What kinds of changes can we expect to our daily lives?
Hopefully, we’ll have broadband and Wi-Fi in every home, and in every senior living community. That is a baseline requirement for most of the products that I deal with and cover. But even without these basic requirements, I believe that AI and the continued miniaturization of electronics, as well as intuitive voice-first interfaces, will help us create smart, efficient products that will serve everyone.