“By the time the baby boomers turn eighty, they will be great users of the

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Doctor Moon Choi has worked for years researching in North American universities. Choi has recently moved to South Korea, where she is researching into older adults and technology at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). She explains that it is easier in this country to undertake studies as “there, nearly everyone uses a mobile phone”. Choi has been to the UOC, where she gave a seminar on Research on Aging and Mobility in the Era of Big Data, organized by the research group STS-B (Barcelona Science and Technology Studies Group). Moon Choi spoke of the power of technology with regard to the advancement of social sciences and of how new technologies could improve the independence and quality of life of older adults.

After years of conducting research into older adults and technology, do you think that these tools can help this group have a better quality of life?

In the field of technology and aging, we can differentiate two areas: technology for intervening in people’s lives and technology as a research tool. In the seminar I gave at the UOC, I was referring to the second area. Consequently, research in social science is based primarily on conducting surveys of the population, but this tool has certain limitations, especially with regard to measuring specific parameters. For example, if we speak of aging and mobility – the focus of my research – we can obtain more accurate results if, instead of using the results of these surveys as the basis, we use data from connected or wearable devices (a device that the person always has on them and that obtains data about them).

At the same time, technology can empower older adults. For example, one of my projects is technology to help people with dementia. Technology can help carers and healthcare professionals in caring for these patients.

The connected or wearable devices you mention are presently only used by some people, mostly young people. How can we ensure that they are adopted by older adults?

First of all, we need to carefully review our thoughts and perceptions about older adults. We call anyone over the age of 65 an older adult, but gerontologists divide them into three groups: young older adults, between 65 and 74 years old; old older adults, between 75 and 84, and the oldest, 85 and over. We are experincing ‘longevity revolution’ My grandparents’ generation lived to the age of about 60-70 years. But my generation could live until we’re 90. This means that there are a lot of years after we retire. We cannot think, then, of older adults as a single group.

But it’s true that, generally speaking, older adults use technology less.

Yes, we call it the digital divide, which means that there are big differences in access to technology across age groups. People over 75 years old were not exposed to smartphones when they were young. But baby boomers, who are in their fifties or sixties, are much more likely to use a mobile phone. So, I think that there are significant differences in the use of technology depending on age. But there are many ways of getting older adults to use technology. There is, for example, telemedicine, mobile health, etc. For example, in rural areas, people who live far from health centres can have access to a doctor by simply connecting with a phone or computer. And there are many other applications. In any event, there is still a large number of innovations that the vast majority of people don’t use. There’s a significant gap between the number of innovations and the roll-out of technology. There needs to be more research to discover why it isn’t being used.

Why do you think this type of innovation does not become widespread among the general public?

It’s true that innovations arouse a lot of interest, especially from a business point of view. Young people are more likely to use mobile health apps – for example, exercise apps are very popular – but this type of innovation is not really integrated into care for older adults, and one of the reasons is that there are significant barriers to their use. Right now I see mobile health as a business often for hospitals. There is a structural lag between the advancement of technology and social policies. Innovations such as the Apple Watch and the Samsung Smart Watch face challenges related to policies and regulations.

Besides this, when new technologies are developed, they are often technologies for technologies. To solve this problem, we need professionals from multidisciplinary fields to work together. For example, engineers will be able to develop more user-centric devices when working with health professionals working with older adults and their families. A multidisciplinary approach is essential so that users can easily adopt new technologies.

Another obstacle is that current older adults were not exposed to technology when they were young. So, we have seen in some studies that if someone uses technology when they are 50 or 60, it will be easier for them to use it when they are in their eighties. In other words, continuity in the use of technology is important. By the time when baby boomers turn eighty, they will be great users of the new technologies. That’s why we will see a significant change in this regard over the next twenty years.

Do you think, then, that these types of technological innovation will have become widespread?

Yes and no. We will probably use more technology, especially to monitor ourselves. For example, here on my wrist you can see my wearable Pedometer, which monitors the steps I take every day, calories I burn every day, and so on. But diagnosing is something else, it cannot tell me if I have an illness or not. In all, monitoring using wearable devices helps healthcare professionals make a diagnosis.

Today, doctors make a diagnosis based on the information we give them when we go to the health centre. With the data from patients’ smartphones, physicians might be able to make a more accurate diagnosis. And we will also be able to prevent some health problems. But, on the other hand, technology could also lead to big differences among people. Some people may like them, but others may not want to be monitored. There could be a movement against technology, and society could become divided into two.

With regard to your research into aging and mobility, what are the principal conclusions?

My previous publications were about senior because I conducted the research projects in the United States – although I have moved to Korea to join KAIST – and driving private vehicles is very important in the North American cultural context. The conclusions of my study are that peer support (e.g. young older adults providing rides to the oldest old) is very important for active aging and aging in place. The concept of community mobility is critical for promoting mobility in later life.

I currently work on a project called, “Building an Age-friendly Daejeon Using ICT.” It is important that building cities and communities for all people into account regardless of their age or ability. I approach it from the social model of disability. It means that disability is decided by social structure, not by individuals. We need to rebuild communities so that everyone can be included, irrespective of their health conditions etc.

What role does big data play in your research?

I’m very interested in using big data to predict people’s behaviour and develop effective interventions. We are facing the era of data revolution. With new technologies, it’s much easier for us to gather data. For example, when I was little, my family had a film camera and we took photos only on special days – birthdays, holidays, etc. – whereas now we take photos of everything everyday. However, even though it’s much easier to gather data, analysing it isn’t becoming easier. In this sense, I think that social scientists need more training in analysing big data, because until now we’ve used traditional statistics that are not often suitable to analysing big data. In the new research collaboration model, we need to learn to work with professionals from other disciplines, say engineers. Collaboration between different disciplines is very important.

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