Tech's New Wrinkle: Silicon Valley Still Doesn't Get 'Old'

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An elderly woman welcomes a robot caregiver at San Lorenzo Nursing Home on December 19, 2015 in Florence, Italy. The European Union supported the Robot-Era project as the world's largest experiment ever conducted on service robotics, involving 160 people in real-world environments over 4 years. Laura Lezza/Getty

The tech industry needs to stop being so dunderheaded about technology for old folks.

For the past decade, the industry has been laser-focused on transforming life and work for one rocketing market segment—i.e., 25-year-olds with money. It has routinely avoided, underestimated or remained ignorant about the world's other rocketing market segment—old people and the family members who take care of them.

This is personal. Like so many baby boomers, I have parents who could really use new ways of dealing with things like memory loss, immobility, shrinking social circles, boredom and, of course, escalating health care needs. I've searched for products and services that would be truly helpful and built for them, not built for the life-hacking, smartphone-glued, Snapchatting crowd. I'm frustrated with how little I can find.

A lot of indicators suggest that not much is coming anytime soon either. The monstrous Consumer Electronics Show recently wrapped. Roaming the event, you might've found the SmartyPans connected frying pan (it will tell you what you're cooking! woo-hoo!) or the Digi-Sense diaper monitor (data about your baby's farts—seriously). But you'd have been hard-pressed to find something built for seniors. "It was pathetic," says Laurie Orlov, an elder care advocate who monitored CES for her Aging in Place Technology Watch blog.

Or look at the list of tech unicorns—the 144 companies pumped so full of private funding they're each worth more than $1 billion. Not one is focused on what's being called "aging tech." It's not a business that makes venture investors salivate. "[Venture capitalists] are too busy investing in Uber and things that get virality," says Ashfaq Munshi, a former Yahoo chief technology officer and IBM Research scientist who, at 54, has become interested in aging tech. "The reality is that selling to the elderly is harder, and if VCs detect resistance, they don't invest."

The age of tech entrepreneurs doesn't help. Data collected by Harvard Business Review put the average age of a tech company founder at 31, and most are between 20 and 34. Entrepreneurs are told that the best way to start a company is to solve a problem they understand. It makes sense that those problems range from how to get booze delivered 24/7 to how to build a cloud-based enterprise human resources system—the problems tangible in the life and work of a 25- or 30-year-old. But for them, the trials of the elderly are too distant—the stuff of grandparents who probably live far from Palo Alto.

It's not that nothing is being done. The old "I've fallen and I can't get up" device has blossomed into a whole herd of wearable emergency calling gadgets. Seth Sternberg, a smart—and older—entrepreneur who sold one company to Google for $100 million, has raised $20 million to start Honor, a cloud service that coordinates care for an aging person. But you can count the developments that really matter on a couple of hands—if you discount the borderline ridiculous products such as SingFit. As if anybody's going to convince my stepfather to belt out "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" as a way to improve his brain.

But at least a growing cadre of people like Munshi see that it's time to mobilize for the aging tech opportunity. Technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality are starting to get good enough to transform the experience of aging.

Munshi is beginning work on a home listening device that would be the descendant of an Amazon Echo or Apple Siri. It will use machine learning to be able to understand spoken words and put them in context. For an old person, the device would bypass the need to navigate a smartphone or website—an impossibility for someone with Alzheimer's or dementia. Just say, "I want to talk to my son," and it might open a video call on the TV screen. Someone with memory loss might not remember where his wife went or how long until she's back. Speak the question, and the system could answer. Just by listening to the way a person talks and comparing it to past conversations, the system could identify problems like a small stroke or worsening memory loss. "It's within reach to solve that kind of problem," Munshi says.

The possibilities expand from there. Virtual-reality glasses in the next decade will get smaller, simpler and much better, to a point where an isolated senior could more naturally visit with family, or socialize with contemporaries, without moving from the couch.

Combine technology like Hearbuds with GPS and facial recognition technology, and seniors could get reminders in their ears about where they are and who they are talking to.

Driverless cars should be a giant leap for the elderly. Today, to stop driving is to give up the freedom to go out to lunch or visit a friend at any time. That limitation ends with driverless cars. You could be 100, nearly blind and have the reflexes of a Galápagos tortoise, but you could whistle for your Google car and tell it to take you to the nearest speakeasy.

Wearables can be geared more to people at risk of falling instead of those wanting to track how far they run, and they could alert family members to changes in gait and monitor other vital signs for trouble.

On the health care front, the big advance might be the virtual doctor visit, erasing the difficulty of getting to a clinic or office. Devices will be able to read any vital sign the doctor needs, and HD video can let the doctor see anything. Such services are already emerging. They need to be improved and tailored to less tech-savvy seniors.

Put these developments together, and it's possible to make getting old radically different a decade from now—as different as it is to be young in 2016 compared with being young in the dark ages of 2006, pre-iPhone. Imagine existing as a teenager when all you could do on a phone is text.

In the meantime, let's hope Digi-Sense never expands into the adult diaper market. There are some things about our parents we don't want to know.

Tech's New Wrinkle: Silicon Valley Still Doesn't Get 'Old'