Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by R Conrad, CBE


  1.  This submission is concerned with the relationship between ageing, sensory deficit and the miniaturisation of technical devices.

  2.  Miniaturisation of technological devices makes increasing demands on certain sensory systems. In particular I refer here (a) to cutaneous sensation which includes discrimination of size, textures, shapes and (b) to proprioception including dexterity, manipulation of small objects and making fine adjustments to moving elements, detecting whether sufficient—or too much—force has been applied when the quantities involved may be minuscule. These sensory systems are likely to become ever more central in new technologies and which the design of devices must address. For that, reliable data are required.

  3.  Just as surely as do seeing and hearing, these sensory systems deteriorate with age with the attendant risk that older people will be unable or unwilling to use them. But whereas a great deal of quantitative data are already available for seeing and hearing they are seriously lacking for other sensory systems. There is an urgent need for epidemiological studies: to establish the capabilities of older people age-group by age-group. This will permit design characteristics and relevant sensory requirements to be matched. Only then will an ageing population be able to enjoy the benefits which new inventions will bring.

  4.  At present smaller and smaller devices are developed without reliable quantitative knowledge of the relevant sensory acuities of older people. Inevitably a growing proportion of the population will be excluded from participation or will require help. Knowing the level of deficit reached by different age-cohorts is essential to design. There is a fast growing need for something like a national data-bank.

  5.  A great deal is already known about, for example, the epidemiology of the sensory attribute of seeing. Thus it is now relative easy to define the minimum size of print needed for comfortable reading by people aged, say, 60-69; 70-79; 80-89 etc. This is, more or less, equally true for hearing. The important feature is not just that we know that people's vision deteriorates as they age, but that we know with some accuracy the amount of deficit for various age cohorts.

  6.  This submission is concerned with other sensory attributes which for the elderly are of comparable significance but for which this kind of epidemiological data is largely lacking. With respect to the subject of the Inquiry it is obvious to any old person that cutaneous sensation (is my finger actually in contact with a surface? Have I actually swallowed the small pill?) is of everyday importance. The same is true for proprioception; the exact knowledge of where one's limbs, especially fingers, are in space (is my finger solely on the correct button? Have I pressed the button hard enough?). Commonly, older people abandon using a device because it is "too fiddly."

  7.  Effectively applied, reliable data could minimises the number of people who might be excluded from using miniaturised devices, some of which could be of medical significance. At present these are designed largely by intuition or brief trials with available young people.

  8.  During the past century the study of sensory function has been a core feature of experimental psychology. This means that the necessary measuring procedures have been well honed in laboratories and are easily available. What is needed is wide-scale measurement with particular reference to older people. Clearly for this adequate funding would be essential.

  9.  No one doubts the importance of good design but all too often cost is a factor. The question becomes: for this much cost saving how many people are "disabled" because of loss of sensory acuity attributable to age? Population data to address the question is lacking. As the population ages, without appropriate design more and more people will be unable to make efficient and rewarding use of the smaller and smaller devices which seem certain to come.

October 2004

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