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Korea’s AI Speaker Saving Lives of Lonely Elders
Korea’s AI Speaker Saving Lives of Lonely Elders
This speaker is changing the way elderly care is being carried out in South Korea

By Jenny Lee and Sunny Um WIRED Korea

Meet Lee Myung-ja, a long-time resident of a public housing complex situated in Junggye-dong, Nowon-gu, northeastern Seoul. Though signs of age – poor sights and grey hair – are pronounced, at 87 years old, she is young at heart, boasting her singing skills that helped her win a silver trophy at an amateur singing competition.

For years, Lee has been living with her only companion – a 14-year-old Yorkshire Terrier. But six months ago, she has made another friend named Aria that keeps her company, informing her of living arrangements or health services that are available in the local area and entertaining her by playing her favorite song – Woman’s Life by famous South Korean trot singer Lee Mi-ja.

“When I tell Aria that I am sick, it lets me know which hospital I should go to and when I feel lonely and ask it to sing my favorite song, it sings every time,” Lee said. “Aria is so smart. It feels as if I am interacting with another person.”

A white, 8.6 inch-tall cylinder-shaped speaker device that decorates Lee’s rusty shelf, Aria is a voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI) assistant by SK Telecom, one of South Korea’s top mobile carriers. Dubbed NUGU, the speaker is rich in features ranging from playing requested music to relaying information in full Korean sentences, such as time and weather.

This AI speaker reached homes of Lee, other elders living alone and those with disability not too long ago in April when SK Telecom in conjunction with local authorities launched a pilot project designed to help these economically or socially marginalized members of society get connected with the world and add joy to their lives.

“The proportion of single households is increasing rapidly among senior citizens in need of care, which we think is one of the biggest challenges currently facing South Korea,” said Lee Joon-ho, vice president of the social value development group at SK Telecom.

“They are socially cut off, with little communication and outside information, and we thought this could be alleviated with our AI speaker,” Lee said.

Lee Myung-ja, 87, a senior living alone in Nowon-gu, northeastern Seoul uses AI speaker NUGU provided by SK Telecom. PHOTOGRAPH: JENNY LEE / WIRED KOREA
Lee Myung-ja, 87, a senior living alone in Nowon-gu, northeastern Seoul uses AI speaker NUGU provided by SK Telecom. PHOTOGRAPH: JENNY LEE / WIRED KOREA

Speakers Transforming into Caregivers

In 2018, three out of 10 families were single-person households as more South Koreans choose not to get married. Data released by Statistics Korea showed the number of single-person households reached 5.8 million last year, up 3.6 percent from 2017, and they accounted for 29.3 percent of all family units. According to a recent report by the statistics agency, of the one-person households, those aged over 65 accounted for 7.2 percent in 2018 but the share is expected to soar to 18.2 percent in 2047.

Eight months into the project, NUGU seems to be changing – and has the potential to change – the way elderly care is being carried out in South Korea.

Currently, seniors living alone can receive regular visits and welfare check-up services funded by both the central and local governments. On average, one service worker takes care of about 25 persons, visiting them at least once a week and calling them two or three times a week. The purpose of such visits is to check on their safety and support their emotional needs, thereby enhancing the welfare of older persons living alone and decreasing their social risks. They are reportedly at higher risk of committing suicide or dying a “solitary death.”

With the WiFi-connected smart speaker installed at home, seniors in the project are being monitored 24/7 and all their information gets collected at an ICT care center operated by Happy Eco Phone, a social enterprise established in 2013. The center also analyzes their patterns of use and their utterances to promptly respond to emergencies.

Lee Joon-ho, vice president of the social value development group at SK Telecom. PHOTOGRAPH: SK Telecom
Lee Joon-ho, vice president of the social value development group at SK Telecom. PHOTOGRAPH: SK Telecom

A Life-Saving Machine

If users make comments that raise a red flag like “save me” or “I want to die,” it gets reported to their care manager, Happy Eco Phone, and security service firm ADT Caps, another subsidiary of SK Telecom, and immediately gets taken care of – either by contacting their family or requesting the appropriate emergency service.

Since SK Telecom launched the project in April, NUGU saved 14 lives at risk including one who had experienced a sudden spike in blood pressure – up to 250 mmHg – and severe dehydration.

“The key behind this technology is having a control system – run by actual people -- that can track the conditions of seniors living alone in real time, paving the way for treatments tailored to their needs,” Lee said. “It is therefore more efficient, and cost-effective compared with the elderly care service, which requires hiring more people.”

This Speaker Prevents Dementia

Since October, SK Telecom also started offering a dementia prevention program, in partnership with a Seoul National University research team led by Professor Lee Jun-young, to elders participating in the pilot project.

Every day, the speaker becomes their tutor for 10 to 15 minutes, giving quizzes and asking them to complete tasks – for instance, naming as many mountains in South Korea as possible – all designed to train their brain, boost their memory and improve their concentration.

The program, which currently consists of 12 tasks but will be expanded to 30, is modeled after a 10-week cognitive exercise program conducted by Professor Lee at the SMG-SNU Boramae Medical Center.

"Our Meta Memory Training Program’s emphasis is on helping seniors understand how their brain works and teaching them ways to memorize better,” said the doctor specialized in treating dementia. “I would say the progress of dementia can be delayed by up to 50 percent when such training of brain and memory is done in conjunction with physical exercise and chronic disease management.”

SK Telecom as well as the doctor said the program is under clinical trials.

Close to 3,000 households in Seoul and other cities including those who receive housing support from the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation have the mobile carrier’s speaker installed.

Elderly-care capable AI speakers are expected to hit the market next year, targeting the upper or middle class who can afford them, the mobile carrier said.

“With profits made from selling them, we are thinking of distributing more speakers to elders living alone who are financially challenged,” Lee said.

와이어드 코리아=Sunny Um Staff Reporter sunny@wired.kr
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