16th January 2017
30 years ago after the flotation of Habitat Terence Conran used some of his newly acquired resources to found the Design Museum, an institution that has tirelessly demonstrated how outstanding design can enhance the experience & quality of life [and a much more spiritually rewarding use of wealth than a super yacht]. Last November the New Design Museum opened its doors in the superbly refurbished Commonwealth Institute in Kensington repurposing the building to become a museum of the future rather than a vestige of the past.
This week sees the opening of an exhibition at the New Design Museum called the New Old [https://designmuseum.org/things-to-do/talks-and-events/pop-up-exhibitions/new-old] it demonstrates how designers are interpreting new ‘near horizon’ technologies to enhance the experience of later life and empower older people to look after themselves, some using autonomous systems and robotics. However there is not a single humanoid robot to be seen, this is for two key reasons:
The first being that although artificial intelligence may be able to beat a human being at board games like Chess and Go, no one has yet developed a functioning human shaped robot capable of autonomously making you a cup of tea in your kitchen, let alone the laboratory. We have had Teasmaids for years but these like dishwashers are inflexible and programmed for a single task. An autonomous robotic arm & hand suitable for domestic use have yet to be developed and this is not a trivial challenge; legs for instance use almost 30 times more energy than wheels, that’s why we don’t use them on cars. At present any attempt at developing humanoids using current technologies is doomed to disappoint.
The second reason is more emotional in that people just feel a bit creepy when confronted by humanoids, we call this ‘uncanny valley’ – people feel threatened by such things. However, we have developed a pet like device, ‘MiRo’, which looks like a cartoon hybrid of a puppy and a bunny, and people feel emotionally engaged, calling it cute and start asking when they can get one. On the face of it MiRo’s principal task, like a pet, is to help people feel happy and reduce loneliness, however, like Radio 4 or Amazon’s Alexa, MiRo can similarly inform. It can also monitor your wellness and remind one to take medicines and recognise people if you are suffering cognitive decline.
The objective is not to replace human on human care, but fill in the gaps when older people might be alone between visits, and give carers an insight into people’s routines too. With a rapidly ageing population and a fast changing society it is probably going to be difficult to find enough compassionate people to do these sensitive jobs.
In the future it will be the responsibility of designers, entrepreneurs and manufacturers to interpret emerging science, technology and engineering to transform it into emotionally engaging products such as the iPhone, which is celebrating its tenth birthday this month, that will enhance the user’s experience, consumer lifestyle and consequentially our social culture.