The ‘Senior Companion’ | Immortal Cyborgs for the Lonely Elderly

When you get old, do you think you’ll be lonely? Do you think you’ll want someone to talk to and reminisce with? Naturally, someone has come up with a technological solution… the ‘Senior Companion.’

Very interesting piece in this month’s Prospect. The ‘Senior Companion’ is a ‘a conversational agent designed to interact with a person for a long period, learning their tastes and habits. For the moment, this would be best suited to elderly people, living alone and wanting company, who might need to be reminded when to take pills and so on.’

When you die, will your relatives miss you? Wouldn’t they like a permanent digital memorial of you, a life-narrative recorded over time by you…and your Senior Companion.

“After years of debriefing its owner’s life, a Companion could certainly produce a convincing approximation of their voice. It would also have access to a huge store of images, emails and documents telling its owner’s life story. From this, it is not too hard to imagine a Companion continuing after its owner’s death to answer questions about their life—in their own voice.”

So many issues that this throws up. Firstly is the continued creep of digital mediation in our relationships. Rather than actually be visited by people, to enjoy engaging conversation and experience presence and some kind of meaningful reciprocity, we give our old people over to virtual relationships, which, because of the flat absence of any genuine presence or history, have nothing to ‘give.’

Secondly, we need to question how we really want to be remembered. Parallel to the rise of digital memory capacity, we are seeing the rise of digital memory functioning as a replacement for actual memories. We have for a long time had archives of photos, of letters and other aides memoire. What the Senior Companion appears to want to do is lead our rememberings far more powerfully and go a little beyond memory into… resurrection?

Death is important, as is the ability to allow experiences to pass into memory, and fade over time. To have permanent, constant reminders could be profoundly damaging, and prevent us from grieving. But in life before death, we should surely be seeking more dignified ways of treating the old in our communities than handing them an iPad to talk to.

[Further paper on this here.]


8 responses to “The ‘Senior Companion’ | Immortal Cyborgs for the Lonely Elderly”

  1. steve collins

    this notion only makes sense in the context of today’s pre-digital elderly. by the time our generation are old we will have created our digital archives ourselves [like this blog for instance], and will still be creating them. an ipad is precisely what we will require – not to talk to the ipad, but to the person in the skype window on the ipad [just like i’m addressing you now, kester, not my laptop]. it’s not a total substitute for personal contact, but if that is infrequent for whatever reason it helps in the meantime. better than sitting in front of the tv all day.

  2. …better than sitting in front of the tv all day.

    Yes, but no substitute for personal contact. We’re living longer, and yet more alone. It seems this is an attempt to deal with the symptoms, while we ought to be looking at the root. People should remain in proper community, rather than in lonely mediation. We are addressing one another now through a digital medium, which is fine in the context of the relational networks we can draw on. But for many old people who see no one for days, this is surely a solution provided by the young that attempts to mollify their loneliness without any great cost to their descendants?

  3. steve collins

    and of course it won’t work as a solution to loneliness, because we know it’s a robot [and we’re nowhere near making lifelike ones]. one could subvert the whole thing by feeding it a lot of false memories – one could have one’s revenge on neglectful relatives. ‘memories’ of abuse or financial misdeeds spoken by the robot after one’s death. hehehe.

  4. steve collins

    … i can imagine a society in which NOT to give someone a personal companion would be basically saying “we won’t miss you when you’re gone”…

  5. acetate monkey

    “It seems this is an attempt to deal with the symptoms, while we ought to be looking at the root…this is surely a solution provided by the young that attempts to mollify their loneliness without any great cost to their descendants”. I think you’re right to highlight the worrying prospect (no pun intended) of this Ketser. Whilst laudable on the surface, once gran has been fobbed off with a SC, the risk is there is even less incentive to visit than if we considered her sitting alone without one. Isn’t it also spooky that someone’s identity could taken over? I know in one sense this is just kodak photo memories and home movies taken to the nth degree, but I don’t want a PC with the vestments of my nearest and dearest. They are unique in time and space and should be respected as such: cherished whilst here and mourned when gone but not eternally revoked as a kind of grannie-lite.

  6. steve collins

    given that the technology isn’t there yet, today’s grannies need not fear. WE are the ones who will face this kind of thing. and we will be used to technological mediation. somewhere behind this is an assumption about the experience of old age that may not hold true in our future. i doubt we’ll need such companions given our communicative technologies. unless the companions are sexy and/or useful. the issue will be presence rather than loneliness as such.

  7. interesting bit in the Indie today along a similar line, about how Facebook et al have dictated that we must interact via technology.

  8. God this makes me sad. Maybe I’ll start volunteering …there are organizations around visiting the elderly, aren’t there?

    The Wilson stuff I found yesterday is def all about this …I posted a pt1-of-6 vid on my site yesterday.