The world population will age dramatically by 2050—a problem especially for Japan, Europe and the U.S. Large elderly populations will place a growing strain on human caregivers as well as health and social systems. This case study explores the value added of considering both sex and gender when designing Assistive Technologies for the Elderly.
Method: Analyzing How Sex and Gender Interact
Assistive technologies support independent living for the elderly. When developing these technologies, it's important to look at sex differences. Women for example live longer, but may have more debilitating disease; men, for example, lose their hearing earlier. In addition, it is important to look at gender differences: as they age, women and men have different partnering patterns (elderly women, for example, more often live alone), men and women have different experience in household management, and elderly men and women have different receptivity to technology. We encourage researchers to analyze how sex and gender interact in individual women and men so that researchers can design the most effective and marketable assistive technologies—designers want their products to be useful and appealing to both women and men.
Gender issues become especially important as assistive technologies become more personalized. Engineers in the U.S., Europe, and Japan are developing robots to help elderly people. Georgia Tech, for example, has created a robotic nurse, named "Cody," that can bathe elderly people. Bathing is an intimate activity that requires careful thought—for women and for men. Carnegie Mellon is developing HERB (Home Exploring Robot Butler) that can fetch household items for you, remind you to take your medicine, or even clean up the kitchen. If there is a robot to clean up the kitchen, I'm ordering it immediately!
As these robots enter our lives, we humans will gender them. Studies of synthetic voices (machine-generated voice) show that human listeners assign gender to machine voices; that is to say, we interpret these machine voices as the voice of a woman or a man, even when the designers may have tried to create a gender-neutral voice (see Making Machines Talk). Apple's Siri (the original iPhone voice) is interesting in this regard. Ask Siri why she is a woman, one of her responses is, "I was not assigned a gender," implying that it's not Apple's fault that you, the listener, ascribe gender to her. As soon as humans interpret a voice as masculine or feminine, we tend to apply all of our cultural stereotypes to the machine.
Considering sex and gender when designing new assistive technologies will be ONE important factor to ensure that the products are successful with all users.
1. Assessing women's and men's needs for assistive technologies.
2. Developing assistive technologies considering women's and men's needs.
- 3. Using participatory design to create the next generation of assistive technology.