AI and aging | interview with nicola palmarini

Global Manager AI for Healthy Aging for IBM Research. Author and TEDx Speaker.

Thank you for joining us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.


Q: What drew you to the world of AI and aging? 

creative director.  It was one of the most exciting journeys of my professional career: guess there is someone who still calls us the “godfathers of Internet in Italy”. I joined IBM in 2000, to focus on internet projects that could leverage the uprising interaction technologies – portals, e-commerce – to serve a fast-growing customer base hungry for digital services. While in this position, it became clear to me that accessibility was and remains one of the most compelling competitive advantages. And I was in the right organization to improve my knowledge about human-machine interactions: accessibility is a major part of IBM’s history and a foundational business driver. I experienced this first-hand meeting many colleagues who were trailblazers in multimedia accessible content solutions IBM delivered first time for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Through the IBM experience and dealing with clients on the field, I have learned all I know about bringing inclusive services to a digital platform and how accessibility is a key corollary to usability. That means I don’t only get in touch with a person with a disability but if I am developing what we define – human-centric solution -, the answers lie somewhere in designing for humans of all abilities. Being Italian I was early interested in aging since Italy is the second fastest aging country in the world after Japan. Those issues – personal, societal, economic – related to the aging of the population that we all consider a global challenge today were already obvious to us in Italy at least a decade ago, that’s why I started to be deeply involved in life transitions and technology since 2007.

After having led the IBM Human Centric Solutions practice in Europe, I moved to US: today I work at IBM Research in the MIT/IBM Watson AI Lab Cambridge and I serve as global manager of artificial intelligence for Healthy Aging. In this role we’re helping people in their life transitions to be more independent. Between other techniques, artificial intelligence is playing a crucial role today because it clearly helps us to more quickly and better understand behaviors of humans, so that we can then provide customized feedback and offer support that can really change the daily lives of these people.


Q: How do you describe inclusion to others?  

We have an expression in Italian, which goes something like this: If you invite someone to play soccer, keeping them on the bench does nothing. Inclusion is when you ask them to play with you on the field.


Q: What are the challenges of designing for the aging population? Or perhaps designing an experience that works for the aging population and mainstream?

The first challenge is us vs. stereotypes. Ageism is one of the most subtle forms of discrimination since it is deeply embedded in our societal and cultural systems. It requires designers to conduct deep self-analysis first to recognize and admit it within themselves so that then they’ll be able to translate it correctly in the design thinking processes they are called to apply. This consideration leads us to rethink (or out-think) entirely who are we serving with our work. When it comes to older adults, we immediately tend to focus on solving their “needs” (and who knows what their needs really are?) forgetting that people categorized as “aging” have “wants”, desires, dreams as well. We tend to put them in a pre-fab category that requires solving an issue while forgetting essential life elements like fun, sex, love, self-esteem and then – like a natural consequence – design, style, beauty. Many stories of ugly (and failing) inventions illustrate our prejudices about an evolving and mostly unknown population. Human Centric design and co-design methodologies helped all of us to understand far better who we were asked to serve, but I still think that there is an entirely new customer-set out there we don’t know at all or –even worse – we don’t want to know. And it is an incredible opportunity for brands and organizations. Anyone interested?


Q: How is the aging experience different in the US vs. Europe or other cultures? 

Even within Europe it is difficult to generalize. Think for example about the influence of cultural heritage, diversity, language, food across and even within countries. So, this is a tricky question.

One main difference between the US and Europe I noticed is the concept of social networking which is strongly related to the architecture of cities. Family bonding and human interactions are augmented by the typical concentric shape of an EU city where “the square” is most of the time – literally – the center of the town. This architecture is replicated in big or small settlements and supports, encourages and facilitates the liturgy of meeting each other physically, of sharing, of exchanging glances between known and unknown people. It is a kind of un-official social control system where the presence and vicinity with others guarantee a sense of community, help, proximity and interaction we know being crucial for our physical and mental health.

Proxemics, the study of interpersonal communication, defines “personal space” as the cylinder of air surrounding each person which people consider as an extension of their body. In North America, the standard socially acceptable distance between acquaintances having a conversation is around 4 feet. In Italy for example, instead, the norm is 2-3 feet, a range that North Americans tend to reserve for intimate relationships. This just an example of a cultural trait, and I must admit can sound pretty vague to catch if you are not born in Europe.
But this concept of reciprocity and vicinity is – in my opinion – one of the elements that beside diet and lifestyles helps to explain the longevity of Europeans.


Q: What are some examples of how IBM is currently using AI to serve the aging population? How will it be used in the future? 

We’ve designed several experiences that took advantage of what we defined as the “internet of caring things”, the IoT applied to caring about humans. It allowed us to collect data – in a transparent way (using mainly environmental data at the moment) about people’s behavior. Then we applied machine learning techniques to the data: it proved to be very effective to help to recognize patterns and then to reiterate this process of understanding. We literally could see what we couldn’t see before and understand what we couldn’t before. This represents a step forward for us in our path to define a baseline about how an individual is feeling and about his/her status. Then predict variation from this baseline to wisely suggest how to improve his or her quality of life and independence which – in the end – is our primary goal.

Also, AI in general, is proving to be quite useful in helping to interact with individuals. Our research around loneliness as an accelerator of physical and cognitive diseases showed the need of any possible (but feasible) system of relational support, even if virtual. I was skeptical about this kind of approach with elders, and again I was a victim of my own prejudices. We are exploring applications on several dimensions: from recommendations to interactions that sound very promising while leveraging far more natural interfaces than a finger over a screen, like voice.


Q: What is AI really good at to enable an inclusive experience? And what can’t it do?

Hard to say where AI won’t be in the near future since it is augmenting all our interactions. As someone said: its capability to “understand more about us than ourselves” is a gateway to a fundamental concept of inclusion: personalization. Receiving personalized suggestions, content, information, directions in a seamless way are so powerful for persons with special needs since it reduces the friction of systems typically not projected and designed for different stages of life.

“Voice” itself is living a new renaissance after a first boom in the Seventies. Both outbound and inbound: we can command devices using the voice and we can also learn a lot by listening and analyzing the voice. We used to say “conversation is a sensor” that can suggest much about how we feel today and how we’ll feel in the future and help us to diagnose – years ahead – potential harmful diseases.

On the other side of the coin, today AI is still mainly trained on old dataset and on data provided by people – and as we know, people are biased. AI is “learning” from examples and generalizing to situations never seen before. So this can represent an exclusion factor. However, if our work follows an ethical, transparent and shared approach, AI could help us to identify bias in daily life. For example, understanding AI bias will help to recognize human bias and we could create bias alerting AI tools to alert humans of unfair behaviors. In other words, the problems and its solutions are in the same loop.

Q: Who do you admire in this area of AI, aging or both? People, companies or an article/book are all fine.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet fantastic people along all my career path. But if you ask me one name in research about aging, I’d say Professor Tom Kirkwood from Newcastle University which I humbly sit beside in the Scientific Advisory Committee at MIRA Institute at McMaster University. His work on longevity is without a doubt a huge contribution to the progress of humanity. Also researchers like Liat Ayalon or Tracey Gendron are on their path to fight ageism, and in my opinion, their work is fundamental for us and the generations to come to make this planet a better place to live.


About Nic

Nicola Palmarini is the Global Manager of AI for Healthy Aging at IBM Research in Cambridge (USA) where he lives today. Nic helps and enables customers all over the world to accelerate their digital and social transformation – through Artificial Intelligence, and IoT based technologies – within the crucial matters and needs of the aging population fostering diversity as a competitive advantage. His expertise is in the aging in place solutions and mostly where technology can augment the quality of life of the elderly.

Prior to that, Nic served as head of digital strategy the fin-tech startup From 2006 to 2014, he was Director of IBM Human Centric Solution Center where he developed his experience in emerging technologies for aging people and persons with disabilities. In this role, he has been Smarter City subject matter expert with knowledge of Ambient Assisted Living. In addition to this position, from 2000 to 2014 Nic was Creative Director first and then head of IBM Italy Communication Center of Excellence and Manager of Social Digital Marketing & Brand Systems Italy.

From 1990 to 2000 he served as copywriter first and creative director then in several Italian and American advertising agencies like Ogilvy and JWT. As the Creative Director in McCann-Erickson Interactive, Nic led the 1997 launch of Telecom Italia Internet brand ( growing the customer base from 40K to 4 million active users and curated the entire Microsoft off/online communication portfolio activities.

Nic is a member of the Gerontological Society of America; a board member of International Scientific Advisory Committee at McMaster Institute for Research on Aging; a board member of the Scientific Committee at Political sciences and international relations at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milano (Italy). He is also Co-Founder of TAG Innovation school.

Twitter @nipalman



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