Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 wants.


  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 privacy;

    3.  Keeping elderly people intellectually, physically and economically active for much longer; and

    4.  Providing communications infrastructures which could substantially reduce social isolation.


  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 years.


  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.


  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 developers.

  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, and

    —  The areas we know least about.


7.1  Communication

  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 environment.

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.

January 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 17 January 2001