Memorandum submitted by Professor Alan
F Newell, Department of Applied Computing, University of Dundee
Professor Newell has been researching into the
use of Communications and Information Technology to assist elderly
and disabled people for over 30 years. In the 1970s he developed
the speech translation system used in the House by the Rt Hon
(now Lord) Ashley. Professor Newell now heads one of the major
research groups in the world in this field. He has assisted the
EPSRC with the Equal Initiative and is also a member of the Foresight
Thematic Panel on Ageing.
Demographic trends indicate a substantial growth
in the numbers of older people within the developed world. Unless
this group of people benefit from advances in domestic and personal
technology, it may not be economically possible to maintain an
appropriate quality of life for them or their carers. Older people
thus form an important and growing market segment for technology.
Many older people have reduced functionality compared with young
people, and a significant number of them will be disabled. They
have a great deal to gain from technology, but only if the systems
are designed to be usable by them, and do the things which they
want to do. A further argument for such practices is the evidence
that design which includes the needs and wants of older people
produces better solutions for everyone (eg the cassette tape recorder
was originally invented to provide talking books for the blind).
I and my colleagues strongly support the Equal
Initiative and believe that it has been very cost effective, and
one of the most successful of the recent initiatives within EPRSC.
It is vital that initiatives of this nature are continued, and
extended to areas which they have not yet covered. There have
been significant changes in legislation concerning accessibility
for disabled people and demographic trends are leading to an increasingly
ageing population. It is very important that these changes are
reflected in technological research priorities. The Equal Initiative
is a start, and has produced some very interesting research findings.
In the early stages of the initiative, there was, more or less,
sufficient funding for applications in the areas covered by the
initiative. The scope of the initiative, however, needs to be
widened, particularly in the area of Communication and Information
Technology, and the funding increased to encourage more "mainstream"
researchers to move into this area of activity. There is a wealth
of talent which could be focussed on this area, but currently
it does not have a sufficiently high profile to attract sufficient
researchers to move into this field.
Research within the EQUAL remit, however, is
interdisciplinary; it requires user-centred methodologies, and
is also a young science. The criteria for excellence for research
of this nature can be very different to those for the more traditional
sciences. In addition to expanding the initiative, therefore,
it is also important that the Research Councils in general are
aware of these differences when any research proposals relevant
to this general field are assessed.
The percentage of the population which could
be affected by this research is not reflected in the amounts of
money which are currently devoted to initiatives of this nature,
nor the amount of research effort which is devoted to it within
the UK research community. Unless research effort is increased,
the quality of life of older people in the UK will be put at risk,
and UK industry will not be in a position to respond to the worldwide
market opportunities provided by older people, their needs and
A particular section of the "EQUAL"
philosophy which needs to be extended is the use of Communications
and Information Technology (C&IT). Although C&IT has made
an enormous difference to effectiveness and efficiency in the
workplace, it offers little or no support to older people. There
is no evidence that elderly people are particularly technophobic,
nor that such technology should be difficult to use, but there
is an economic imperative for the advantages of C&IT to be
extended to older people. Without this technology, society is
unlikely to be able to provide the level of support to numbers
of older people predicted by demographic trends. Well designed
C&IT systems have great and unrealised potential to enhance
the quality of life and independence of elderly people within
the community by:
1. Allowing elderly people to retain a high
level of independence and control over their lives;
2. Providing appropriate levels of monitoring
and supervision of "at risk" people, without violating
3. Keeping elderly people intellectually,
physically and economically active for much longer; and
4. Providing communications infrastructures
which could substantially reduce social isolation.
4. THE NEED
Although there are research groups throughout
the world whose work includes an investigation of the ways Information
Technology can assist elderly and disabled people, this field
has not been a high profile activity within the IT research community.
The research which has been done has tended to concentrate on
the needs of younger disabled people, and has not taken into account
the particular characteristics exhibited by elderly people, some
of whom may have specific disabilities in addition to those characteristics
usually associated with age. This means that the elderly population
are not benefiting from many of the advances that have been made
in Communications and Information Technology over the past 25
5. BLUE SKY
Older people and people with disabilities have
as much right to eventually reap the benefits of Blue Sky research
as able bodied people. The rate of change of computer technology
also means that, in addition to "near market" research
and development, long-term research, traditionally supported by
Research Councils, is essential. Centres of excellence should
be encouraged in these fields, and "main-stream" researchers
be encouraged to take into account the changing characteristics
of the user base of their equipment caused by demographic trends.
This will include both systems for work and pleasure as, in the
longer term, it is highly likely that people will carry on working
for much longer than is now the case.
6. SETTING PRIORITIES
It is important that the research within the
EQUAL remit covers the whole range of potential needs of older
people. There is a sense in which blind people in "cyberspace"
are analogous to wheelchair users within the built environment.
They are an important group, who are obviously and extremely disadvantaged
within the environment, but these groups can be mistakenly thought
of as the only ones who need to be considered by researchers and
It is also very important to avoid favouring
the "quick technological fix for a problem we understand".
The field is a very young one, and we should try to produce a
portfolio of interests which take account of a variety of research
needs rather than focus on any specific priority. In particular
these should include:
The most difficult problems (both
intellectually and practically),
The unfashionable areas for research,
The areas we know least about.
7. KEY RESEARCH
Computer based systems to facilitate writing
and augment speech for those with speech and language dysfunction
caused by hearing loss, dementia or strokes.
7.2 Dementia and memory loss
Systems to assist people with dementia, and
systems to maintain mental abilities by appropriate exercise.
7.3 Social isolation
Communication systems and infrastructures to
reduce the social isolation.
7.4 Support for daily living
Physical and cognitive support for daily living.
7.5 Assessment and monitoring
Safe and unobtrusive monitoring within the home
7.6 User centred design
Design methodologies for computer products which
are inclusive of elderly people.
7.7 Computer Interfaces
Creative, flexible and adaptable interfaces
to computers and other systems which are effective and efficient
for the full spectrum of user diversity, and which do not require
good memory and language abilities.
7.8 Understanding and representing user diversity
Knowing what really are the functional characteristics
of all potential users.
7.9 Presentation of information
How to present information in different modalities
without changing its meaning (eg subtitles for hearing impaired
people), and most effectively to people with disabilities in the
various modalities (eg slow/fast speech etc.).
7.10 Cognitive prostheses
As the world gets more complex, and more reliant
on vast amounts of data, everyone needs good cognitive prostheses,
not just elderly people.