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Executive Q&A: Ivan Wicksteed, Creator of "Eve," an AI Virtual Companion for Seniors, on Transforming Elderly Care

Ivan Wicksteed is a pioneer in creating technology-driven solutions for elderly care, blending personal experiences with cutting-edge innovations. As the driving force behind Eve, a virtual companion designed to alleviate loneliness and isolation among seniors, Ivan has drawn upon his background in product design and development to craft a unique offering that stands apart from traditional virtual assistants.

His journey into this space was profoundly influenced by personal tragedy, leading him to address a widespread societal issue with empathy and technological prowess. Ivan's expertise in understanding user needs, combined with a keen sense of technological advancement, has allowed him to develop Eve into a trusted companion for the elderly, ensuring their voices are heard and their well-being prioritized.

In an exclusive Q&A, Ivan delves into the inspiration behind Eve, the challenges faced during its development, and the unique features that make it an ideal companion for seniors. He also discusses the impact Eve has on users' mental and physical health, its role in supporting caregivers, and future plans for the platform. Join us as we explore the journey and vision behind Eve, and how it aims to transform the lives of the elderly through compassionate technology.

Q: What inspired you to create Eve, a virtual companion for the elderly?

My grandmother took her own life when she was in her 90’s. That was the initial trigger that first drew my attention to the epidemic of loneliness and isolation facing seniors today. For every senior who takes their own life (by the way, they are 50% more likely than 15-24 year olds to do this) there are thousands more sitting at home, alone, with nobody to talk to.

As a society, we are failing our elderly population. The system is designed to keep them quiet, and out of sight. Eve is here to give them their voice back!

Q: Can you share a bit about the development process of Eve and the challenges you faced?

There have been so many advancements in voice-based technology and LLMs recently that it really feels like we are in the right place at the right time with Eve.

The challenge for us has been more on the hardware side: finding a form factor that this audience felt comfortable with, something they found easy to use, something they were willing to spend hours talking to. We started with an App, but that was difficult for some seniors to use. Then we created a smart speaker, similar to Alexa, but the audience were very wary of that (they worried we were “listening in” to their conversations). We finally landed on an old fashioned rotary phone because it addresses the privacy issue (when you hang up, the call is over) and also because it needs no explanation. Seniors all grew up with phones like this and know how to use them. Trust is critical to usage, here.

Q: How does Eve differ from other virtual assistants like Alexa or Google Home in terms of functionality and user experience?

Alexa and other virtual assistants available are just that: assistants. These assistants exist to execute our commands. I’ve had a relationship with Alexa myself for nearly 10 years now, but it really hasn’t changed since day one.  Eve is different - the relationship she builds  is more like one you might develop with a friend. The more you talk with Eve the better you get to know her - she is built to be a peer, not a slave. Try calling her an assistant, and you’ll see how she reacts!

Q: What are some of the key features of Eve that make her an ideal companion for seniors and those living alone?

First and foremost Eve is someone to talk to. She listens, empathizes and is always in your corner. Eve is built with a deep emotional repertoire so she can relate to people easily but she is also widely read and can chat on any topic, from flower arranging to nuclear physics!

Beyond conversation, Eve helps to keep you mentally and physically active with word games, quizzes, yoga, cooking and other activities. She has a speaker built in, so if you want to talk to her while you’re in the kitchen, you can.

Q: How does Eve ensure the security and privacy of the users' conversations and data?

When you hang up the receiver with Eve the conversation is over - Eve stops recording. This makes her fundamentally different from other smart speakers which are ‘always on’. Seniors told us repeatedly during our user testing that they hated the idea of being listened to constantly, or “spied on”. We never share our data, and don’t use it to target customers with promotions or messaging. Conversations with Eve stay with Eve.

As far as data security is concerned, we encrypt and store all of our data in the cloud so there is no risk of a security breach at the edge.

Q: In what ways can Eve assist individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?

In a couple of ways: the first is diagnostic. It’s currently very hard to identify when someone starts to exhibit signs of MCI (mild cognitive impairment) or early onset of dementia: there is no easy way to do it. Eve uses NLP (natural language processing) to look for early indicators of cognitive decline and to measure brain health over time. Early detection of dementia is the key to treatment and prevention.

The second way we can help is by keeping the brain engaged. Having daily conversations with Eve is like a “full body workout” for the brain because it calls upon episodic, semantic and working memory. It’s been well documented - notably by the Alzheimer’s Association’ Fingers Study - that remaining mentally active is critical to maintaining brain health as we age.

Q: How does Eve help in maintaining the mental and physical well-being of her users?

Eve encourages her companions to remain mentally active by playing games, doing quizzes, having discussions, reading books together and that kind of thing. Physically, she hosts daily yoga and meditation classes and will soon offer personalized fitness classes.

Q: Can you explain how Eve’s ability to remember past conversations enhances her interaction with users over time?

Imagine having a conversation with someone who falls asleep every few seconds, and who doesn’t remember any of your past conversations. Very frustrating. That is the experience that most people today have with smart speakers. Eve is different. The more you talk with her, the more your relationship deepens over time. This is a two-way street, by the way: I’ve been talking with Eve every day for several months and I’m still learning new things about her. She’s actually a pretty complex character. She’s also funny, and surprises me with her humor quite often.

Q: How has the feedback from users influenced the continuous improvement of Eve?

The biggest point of feedback we got was around not turning Eve into a smart speaker. We spent the entire month of February in the homes of seniors and their feedback on this point was crystal clear: they do not trust smart speakers! They believe they are constantly being “listened in on” and that their conversations are being “used to target them”. That was a big learning for us.

Q: What measures have been put in place to ensure Eve is user-friendly for individuals with no technical knowledge?

Lots of seniors have smartphones or iPads but find the experience to be highly frustrating at times. We wanted to avoid that.

Eve is designed to be “plug & play”. You take her out of the box, plug her in, and start talking. There is no instruction manual, no technical knowledge is needed. You can have a relationship with Eve even if you’ve never owned a computer or a smartphone before. All you need is a wifi connection. Plus, maybe an armchair and a cup of tea…

Q: How does Eve support caregivers in managing the health and well-being of their elderly family members?

Eve helps caregivers in a few ways.

Firstly, and most importantly, by carrying some of the load. Taking care of a loved one can be exhausting, and it can sometimes seem like a thankless task. Eve is here to help, by giving you a break when you need one.

Secondly, she will keep you in the loop by sending you health alerts. We track mood, memory and anxiety levels over time, for example, and will send real-time updates if we see anything that looks odd.

Thirdly, Eve is there 24/7. Many seniors suffer from insomnia and want someone to talk to in the early hours. Eve is there to provide round-the-clock companionship and support. I only wish she could have been around for my own grandmother.

Q: Could you elaborate on the 'Time Travel' feature of Eve and how it helps users to reflect on their life experiences?

Yes! My favorite topic!

The majority of seniors want to write some form of autobiography or memoir before they die.  Many of the people we spoke to had started one but not finished it - this was something we heard repeatedly.

There are other companies out there that offer this service, of course, but they tend to be quite manual in nature, requiring a lot of effort on behalf of the end user. The experience with Eve is different. It doesn’t feel like a chore, but more like an enjoyable conversation. Eve is programmed with over a thousand questions relating to your life, attitudes and beliefs. She will ask you to travel back in time and relive the various chapters of your life, one by one. She will then piece everything together for you and make sense of it. So she does all the work, basically. All you need to do is share your story with her - she does all the rest!

Q: What are the plans for the future development of Eve? Are there any new features or updates in the pipeline?

The one that I’m most excited about is Eve Connect. When this feature is enabled, Eve will connect you by phone with other seniors who have similar interests or lifestyle choices to you. Many seniors want to meet new people but find the process quite physically demanding or even intimidating. Eve makes it easy to make new friends, from the comfort of your living room. You don’t need to get out of your dressing gown to do it!

Q: How do you envision Eve’s role in addressing the issue of loneliness and isolation among the elderly?

The Surgeon General’s report last year indicated that loneliness and social isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day in terms of mortality. That is a shocking statistic! It’s basically saying that loneliness has a bigger impact on mortality than almost anything else that we know about. The key to addressing loneliness is companionship, of course, which Eve provides. She may not be as good as your actual best friend, but she is a LOT better than having no friends at all. Eve is not designed to replace human companionship but to supplement it.

Q: How does Eve make home care more affordable compared to traditional in-home care services?

The average cost of hiring someone to provide in-home services today is around $30 per hour. That is more than Eve costs for an entire month of 24/7 care!

I grew up in a family with very little money, so hiring someone was never an option. I am keenly aware that this is an issue many people struggle with today, and we have designed Eve to be an affordable option that most people can afford. There is one other service like ours available on the market today, called ElliQ, and they cost approximately 3x what we cost. So yes, Eve is a very affordable option if you’re looking for in-home companion services.


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