AI can ‘plug the gaps in the brains’ of dementia sufferers

More people die from dementia than any other condition 
More people die from dementia than any other condition

Artificially intelligent technology should be used to “fill the gaps” in the brains of people with dementia, the head of the Alzheimer’s Society has said.

Kate Lee, the chief executive at the charity, said more use should be made of programmes that recognise faces, speak forgotten words, or help people take care of pets and their homes.

There are an estimated 944,000 people living with dementia in Britain, and the figure is expected to increase to more than a million by 2030 and over 1.6 million by 2050.

But most dementia technology is used to track people, rather than helping them live their lives.

Writing for The Telegraph, Mrs Lee said: “Just keeping people with dementia safe isn’t enough. We need to be much more ambitious – and harness technology to allow people to live the lives they want, to keep up with hobbies, with friends, to keep their sense of self.

“The kind of technology we’ve seen applied to dementia so far lags far behind the standard we use in our everyday lives – Alexa, Spotify, and TikTok use cutting edge software which has truly transformed the way we live.

“It’s unbelievable that in a time where facial recognition technology probes you to tag your brother in a Facebook photo, people with dementia can’t benefit from the same tech gently reminding them that the person entering the room is their daughter, Kate.

“With machine learning and artificial intelligence embedded in everything we do, from predictive text to helping us drive our cars, there is a real and exciting opportunity to harness this technological revolution to benefit people with dementia, to help fill in the gaps in their brains as their condition progresses.

“This could be the difference between keeping someone safe and helping them live the lives they want.”

The charity has partnered with Innovate UK and the Medical Research Council (MRC) to create the £4 million Longitude Prize on Dementia to encourage inventors to come up with new ways to help people cope with the neurodegenerative diseases.

Organisers said projects might involve Netflix-like platforms that could make recommendations about what to buy at the shops, or people or places to visit.

Or facial recognition technology could learn non-verbal communication of dementia patients so that it could offer up the right word, or contact a loved one.

Why artificial intelligence is the next big leap in tackling dementia

By Kate Lee, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society

Dementia is one of the most significant global health challenges we face today. It is the UK’s biggest killer and there are 900,000 people here living with dementia, set to rise to 1.6 million by 2040. My mum is one of them.

Nearly everyone you meet has a connection to dementia; a parent, grandparent, friend who they heartbreakingly witnessed deteriorate before their eyes. It’s hard to deny that dementia is devastating, it robs people of their memories and their identities. But we are not without hope. In the past 20 years we have witnessed numerous breakthroughs in dementia care and treatment on a scale not seen in previous generations, from research that helped us understand its causes to revolutionary trials for potential treatments.

We know that there are treatments around the corner which could be life-changing for some with dementia, but what about those living with it now? I’ve heard it said that when someone is diagnosed with cancer they are scared of death – when you’re diagnosed with dementia, you’re scared of life.

One of the most exciting and accessible advances has been the rapid growth of dementia tech – smart, electronic devices that have already proved valuable in helping improve care for people living with dementia.

Remote monitoring devices that would allow GPs to step in and prevent falls or infections are coming down the track, meaning more people should be able to live safely at home for longer, and location tracking apps that give relatives peace of mind are already used across the country.

But just keeping people with dementia safe isn’t enough. We need to be much more ambitious – and harness technology to allow people to live the lives they want, to keep up with hobbies, with friends, to keep their sense of self.

The kind of technology we’ve seen applied to dementia so far lags far behind the standard we use in our everyday lives – Alexa, Spotify, and TikTok use cutting-edge software which has transformed the way we live. We need the same pioneering approach to dementia tech, where the promise and possibility of a technology revolution for the lives of people living with the condition is huge.

We know existing tech is often too complicated, or not intuitive for people living with dementia. We need a different approach that doesn’t just take into account thinking and memory problems, but provides workarounds too. Even for the partners and carers of many people with dementia, technology can be a struggle. Many today are from a generation where technology wasn’t a part of life growing up. My mum, Barbara, was diagnosed with dementia in 2007, and we struggled to balance keeping her safe with maintaining her independence and ability to do the things she always had. We didn’t really use much technology other than FaceTime, in part because my dad as her carer struggled himself to use technology, as it just wasn’t simple to operate. Why can’t we create an iPad that when picked up, simply responds to the motion sensor and knows to call your child?

With machine learning and artificial intelligence embedded in everything we do, from predictive text to helping us drive our cars, there is a real and exciting opportunity to harness this technological revolution to benefit people with dementia, to help fill in the gaps in their brains as their condition progresses. This could be the difference between keeping someone safe and helping them live the lives they want.

Can you imagine a world where a diagnosis with dementia didn’t mean one day you might have to give up your driving licence, because self-driving car software (which already exists) can kick in if you struggle? Or where a “smart” plug sends a message to your children/ carers when you’ve boiled and poured the kettle, to confirm you’ve had your morning cup of tea?

Self-driving car software could in future mean a diagnosis with dementia doesn't mean you might have to give up your driving licence - Alamy
Self-driving car software could in future mean a diagnosis with dementia doesn't mean you might have to give up your driving licence - Alamy

It’s unbelievable that in a time where facial recognition technology probes you to tag your brother in a Facebook photo, people with dementia can’t benefit from the same tech gently reminding them that the person entering the room is their daughter, Kate.

That’s why we have partnered with Innovate UK and Challenge Works to launch the Longitude Prize on Dementia, a challenge-based competition offering £4.34 million in seed funding and development grants to global innovators who can come together to create game-changing, personalised, accessible technology that will enable more people with dementia to live independent lives for longer, continuing to do the things they enjoy.

The tools that come out of this will have real potential to enable the millions affected by dementia to continue living fulfilling lives. And some of the seeds have already been planted in the everyday tech we take for granted. For instance, the AI that helps Netflix to suggest what you’d like to watch next could anticipate what someone might be trying to say when they struggle to find the right word. Or the software behind Spotify recommendations could suggest music depending on someone’s emotion or what activity they’re engaged in. A new app could enable someone with dementia to cook or help them take care of their pets.

The prize, which will be delivered by innovation experts Challenge Works, is unique in that shortlisted ideas will be created with people living with the early stages of dementia, ensuring that the technology is developed with their real-life experience at its heart.

In order to attract truly integrated, progressive technology, we need entries from diverse sectors, individuals and backgrounds – anyone with a bright idea which will make a difference to people’s lives can enter. No previous experience in creating dementia technology is necessary.

Twenty-three discovery award winners (semi-finalists), selected in January 2023, will not only receive financial support but capacity-building support too. This could take the form of access to data, collaboration with organisations representing people living with dementia in the UK and around the world, as well as advice on product design, user experience and business mentoring. All of this will help innovators to develop products that will make a meaningful difference.

By bringing together a coalition of like-minded organisations with a shared focus, I hope we might be able to kickstart a new market of assistive, interactive, life-changing technologies that address the current oversight and enable people with dementia, like my mum, to truly benefit – and ultimately enjoy a fulfilling, meaningful life.