Since the middle 1990s, investors and entrepreneurs have focused almost solely on the youth market, generating endless devices and amusements for youth. Many of these (smartphones, for example) older people can use only with difficulty, because of limited eyesight or coordination. This has been demographically foolish and has increasingly stymied economic growth. The real opportunity, demographic and technological, lies in the opposite direction: in providing services for the ever-increasing number of partially debilitated seniors. They are much richer than the young, their numbers are growing faster, and they have a major unmet demand for what technology can supply: goods and services that allow them to continue living independently in their own homes.
The software revolution of the last quarter century has brought us a series of rather uninteresting devices, such as social media, the economic and social benefits of which have yet to be determined and which have vastly increased the possibilities for unpleasant surveillance. This is extremely bad news for the young, who are the most active segment of the population, most likely to get in trouble or oppose whichever government is in power and most likely therefore to have their lives damaged by excessive surveillance. Thus, whatever the overall balance of the costs and benefits of social media, its net balance to the young is highly unfavorable, as evidenced by the numerous pathologies and increased conflict among them that we are now seeing.
Most analysts focusing investment attention on the senior market emphasize either retirement communities or care homes. Yet neither of these sectors are well suited for seniors’ needs. Retirement communities are generally very expensive in terms of service charges and other fees, so have the potential to drain seniors’ limited assets before they die, forcing them into destitution in their last years. (The natural tradeoff that would allow them to depend on their younger relatives, inheritance of valuable real estate, is destroyed if they move into a retirement community, the capital value of which is generally much less than their previous home.) They also provide little assistance for the most debilitating phase of seniors’ lives, when their physical capabilities begin to deteriorate.
The other business recommended by analysts, care homes, is even less well suited to today’s seniors. They naturally resist entering such institutions, where they will be “looked after” by bossy ill-trained younger people, often hostile immigrants, while their assets are drained and their eventual death is both hurried on and welcomed. The care homes themselves are incredibly labor-intensive businesses, which if they economize on staff, as they often must, are forced into allowing service levels to deteriorate drastically. Thus, the business is not especially profitable for providers, with very few economies of scale, and is regarded with dread by its customers. It is thus that most unsatisfactory of all business ventures, a kind of stationary airline.
There is however a huge market facing us in the application of software and robot technology to elder care. There is not the surveillance problem that there is for the young; the elders who can benefit most from this technology are mostly housebound, and thus unlikely to riot or cause disturbances. An expensive surveillance system whose only report is: “He had lunch, watched some TV and then read a good book” is not worth the billions of dollars that Google will have paid for it. The FBI or CIA agent tasked with monitoring the surveillance footage of the elderly will end up getting fired through a total failure to find any information bearing on crimes or conspiracies against the state, other than completely futile ones that have no chance of being implemented.
Robots have enormous potential, both for those elders unlucky enough to be dragooned into care homes and to enable luckier seniors to avoid them. In care homes, robots will be able to perform many of the care procedures currently carried out by disgruntled staff, thereby providing elders with friendlier and more competent service, while alleviating the cost spiral that inevitably comes from employing human labor for such tasks. In Japan, this change is already happening; that country has an especially skewed age distribution, so is suffering first the difficulties of increased elder care.
Japan also has the advantage of a religion, Shintoism, that favors robots rather than as in the Judeo-Christian tradition disdaining them (Judeo-Christianity is also a gigantic disadvantage in the field of cloning and genetic enhancement, which it has probably set back by at least a generation.) A New Yorker article of May 2021 discussing robot pets quotes approvingly a snooty Robert Sparrow article saying: “For an individual to benefit from ownership of a robot pet they must systematically delude themselves regarding the real nature of their relation with the animal. It requires sentimentality of a morally deplorable sort.” To a Shinto believer, that sentimentality is not morally deplorable, and a relationship with a robot is as valid as a relationship with a cat, a person or a tree.
The real technological frontier for elder care will be in allowing seniors to remain in their own homes for longer. In many such cases, the principal factor forcing seniors into care homes is their frailty, and the cost of monitoring them on a 24-hour basis to rescue them when they fall and cannot recover (my mother had this problem at the age of 89; fortunately she was left helpless for less than a day).
Even the simplest monitoring device can summon help; more complex robotic devices can provide it, giving support to the senior in her home and providing the necessary functions of food provision and bedpan management that become so difficult in extreme old age. We are close to allowing self-driving cars and trucks on the roads; robots within an old person’s home are in principle less of a problem, since in the controlled environment of an apartment or house there is far less chance of high-speed errors that can bring fatal results.
Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) is attempting to take over the robotized vacuum cleaner company iRobot (Nasdaq:IRBT) in the hope of installing surveillance technology in the Roomba vacuum cleaners. What is needed is not a buyer whose principal motivation is evil leftist control of the population through surveillance, but one that attempts to extend Roomba’s functions to include low-level nursing care of the elder population. Frankly, if I am in my 90s and partially disabled, I don’t care if Big Brother is watching me, so long as Big Brother helps me remain in my apartment, living an independent life and not forced into the hostile communal existence of a care home. A Big Brother who does nothing more useful than clean the floor, but nevertheless watches me is unacceptable; the bargain, like most of those with an over-powerful state and the behemoths of the current tech sector, is far too one-sided.
For the young and arrogant of Silicon Valley, the true “uncanny valley” is not that separating them from robots and virtual reality, but that separating them from the old and infirm. That is a major barrier to proper research on machines that would revolutionize the lives of the old and partially infirm. (An effective Alzheimer’s drug will increase this opportunity, since it will allow recovered Alzheimer’s patients to continue living happy, fully aware lives, if only they can get proper robot care.) In a world of recession and tight money, where easy spurious billions are no longer lying around to be picked up, we can hope that this opportunity will be properly pursued, with excellent chances of success.
Martin’s forthcoming book “Forging Modernity – Why and How Britain Got the Industrial Revolution” will be published by Lutterworth Press in March 2023.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)