Smart cities are teaching senior citizens new tricks

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Smart cities are teaching senior citizens new tricks


A woman holds Hyodol, a robot programmed with an Internet of Things (IoT) system that can analyze the daily lifestyle patterns of elderly residents who live alone, which can remind them to take medication, run Q. and A. programs to help prevent dementia and also help the users communicate with their children by speaking to the robot. Developed by Studio Cross Culture and KT, Hyodol is being used by hundreds of elderly residents in Seoul. [STUDIO CROSS CULTURE]

Lee, a 76-year-old resident of a small neighborhood in Yangcheon District in the western end of Seoul, spends most of his time alone in his basement apartment.

There are some days when he goes an entire day without uttering a single word to anyone.

But three months ago, Lee met Aria.

“Aria,” Lee called out, using the name that the SK Telecom-provided artificial intelligence (AI) device, NUGU, recognizes as its own. “I feel like listening to Kim Bu-ja today.”

“Here’s one of your favorites,” the machine responded, playing Kim’s “What To Do” (1975).

His one-room apartment was soon filled with upbeat trot music.

Lee was one of 300 households, many of them one-person, selected by the Yangcheon District Office this year to be serviced by the NUGU voice recognition technology as part of the district’s smart city initiatives.

“We’ve provided elderly residents with NUGU so that they can check simple things like the day’s weather and listen to music just by speaking to the machine,” said Chong Seung-ryong, an employee of SK Telecom. “The machines can also call 911 when the users call out for help. Since we began installing the machines a few months ago, at least seven users have received help by calling the authorities through the machine.”

Yangcheon District was selected as a so-called smart city test bed by the city government of Seoul in January this year, along with Seongdong District in eastern Seoul. The two districts were granted 3.6 billion won ($3.04 million) from the city government to experiment with smart city projects over the next three years.

The hype for smart city development has consumed a number of city administrations around the world. But experts have been raising concerns about their relatability to the actual consumers of such public policies.

“Around 53 percent of the population [in Mexico] experiences some level of poverty,” said Javier Berain, chief technology officer of Mexico City’s Digital Agency for Public Innovation, at a meeting of representatives of cities around the world hosted by the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, on Oct. 15. “There are people without access to running water, education and other basic needs. So why invest in something like a digital agency? Does it make sense?”

In a special report to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the foundation of the paper, the Korea JoongAng Daily tried to answer this question by visiting technology test beds in Seoul and speaking to local residents about the city’s AI and Internet of Things (IoT) programs.


Top: A resident who lives alone in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, speaks to an artificial intelligence device, NUGU, by SK Telecom, at his home on Oct. 1. Above left: The mobile application used by officials in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, to check fine dust levels and indoor carbon dioxide levels detected by sensors installed throughout the district. Above right: A charging station for electric vehicles located in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, that is partly powered by solar panels and by Korea Electric Power Corporation. [PARK SANG-MOON, ESTHER CHUNG]

Smart cities for aging population

Seoul was selected as the third smartest city in the world in surveys by McKinsey Global Institute and Singapore-based Eden Strategy Institute in 2018.

“But a lot of Seoul’s smart city initiatives have focused on applying the technology to infrastructure,” Seoul Metropolitan Government said in its statement when it announced its smart city plan in March this year.

“They have not been sustainable due to lack of investments or lack of interest by local residents for whom these smart city initiatives were not very tangible.”

Part of Seoul’s strategy has been to focus on the aging population in the city and to bring the technology to their homes.

Today, 14.9 percent of the population in Korea, or some 7.38 million people, are aged 65 and over, according to Statistics Korea. The number will reach 37 percent in 2045, surpassing Japan’s expected 36.7 percent that year.

And more of these elderly residents live alone. The number of people aged over 65 who live alone jumped from 16 percent of the total population in 2000 to 19.4 percent as of last year, according to Statistics Korea.

In Yangcheon, 23 percent of the population aged 65 and over, or 13,864 people, live alone.

“In places like Yangcheon and Seongdong, areas that have high proportions of residential population, good technology can actually change people’s lives,” said Kim Su-young, district mayor of Yangcheon, at a meeting with residents at the district office on Oct. 1. “For instance, we have a lot of elderly residents who live alone in Yangcheon and it’s not always easy to check on them every day to see how they are doing.

“We started experimenting with what’s called smart electronic plugs, which can be plugged into a socket in a household and will record the amount of electricity used per day,” she said. “The data is transferred to a social worker, who can check on the person if suddenly there is no electricity usage for a day.”

The IoT-programmed plugs have been installed in 1,000 homes in Seongdong and Yangcheon as of this year. The Seoul city government intends to expand this number to 2,000 by 2020 and 4,000 by 2022.

Some local community centers throughout Seoul have partnered with corporations and telecommunication giants to provide IoT-programmed robots for single-person, elderly households.

Studio Cross Culture has developed a robot named Hyodol with KT, through which an IoT interface and sensors installed in the robot allow elderly citizens who live alone to communicate with their relatives without having to learn how to use a smartphone.

“Hyodol is a smart toy for seniors which collects the user’s data every hour using IoT sensors that are all around the surface of the toy,” said Kim Ji-hee, CEO of Studio Cross Culture, at the Seoul Smart City Summit and Conference on Oct. 1.

“With the input of information on when the senior citizen has to take medicine and eat their meals, as well as when they have to go and see a doctor for a regular checkup, Hyodol will remind the user of these appointments.

“Children and grandchildren who live away from their elderly relatives can use the system’s mobile application to record voice messages and send them to Hyodol, who will then play the message for the users,” Kim said. “And Hyodol will also send text messages to the user’s family members if its sensors detect the user is at home but cannot detect any movement from the user for a prolonged period of time.”

There are 255 Hyodols in use in Guro District, western Seoul, 50 in Seongdong, 50 at Seoul Medical Center in central Seoul and 12 in Yeongdeungpo District in western Seoul and Eunpyeong District in northern Seoul, according to Studio Cross Culture.

While the company advertises its product with video footage of users expressing satisfaction and showing affection for their IoT robots, there is still some taboo in Korean society, once known for its filial duty and culture, about turning to emerging technology to take care of elderly relatives living alone.

“There have been cases of some of these elderly parents receiving help because of the smart plugs,” said an official of the elderly care department of the Seoul city government. “But their children would rather not let others find out about the fact that such plugs were installed at their parents’ homes in the first place.”

When the reporter asked the official for an opportunity to interview a resident of a home where an IoT-programmed electricity plug was installed, the official said none would comply with the request.

But experts are focusing on the positive applications of applying AI and IoT to elderly care.

“I think developments like Hyodol are moving in the right direction,” said Ha Jung-hwa, a professor in the Department of Social Welfare at Seoul National University. “Of course it would be best if children lived near their elderly parents and could check on them regularly. But there are those who cannot carry out this duty.”

In response to the reporter’s question about seeking alternative solutions through legislation - such as expanding the number of vacation days or designating some vacation days for family time - Ha said there are some limits to this possible solution.

“Even if such legislative measures were to designate additional holidays for family time, there is no mechanism to force people to spend that time with their elderly parents,” Ha said. “In the meanwhile, these technological developments are helpful for those who would rather that their parents be able to stay at home with the help of AI and technology than have them move into nursing homes.”

“Additionally, these developments may increasingly meet the needs of the next generation when they become elderly citizens,” Ha said.

“The baby boomers are unlike today’s elderly generation, and they may prefer to receive technology’s help if it means they can be more self-reliant rather than relying on their children as they age.”

Smart city addressing social woes

Sinwol-dong in Yangcheon is the closest point to Gimpo International Airport in the district.

The sound of an airplane flying over the area filled the air every five minutes or so when the reporter visited the district on the afternoon of Oct. 1.

“Come around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., you’ll hear a plane pass by every two minutes,” said Lee Soo-woong, a 76-year-old resident of Sinwol-dong, who has been living there for over 30 years. “It’s a miracle that we haven’t lost our minds.”

About a dozen residents of Sinwol-dong gathered at a local community center that day for a meeting with Kim, the district mayor, to hear about one of the district’s smart city projects that involves installing noise-canceling devices at homes.

“We’ve installed three of these devices in Sinwol-dong, and what it does is that it sends out waves to cancel out the sounds whenever it picks up the sound of an airplane,” said Won Young-o, CEO of Liberabit, a company that uses emerging technology to produce products that are helpful for certain vulnerable groups in society, which in this case, are the residents near the airport. “It will take around three to four months for the AI program in the devices to collect information on the airplane sound waves and to respond more effectively.”

But for some residents, smart technology was not what they were looking for.

“Are you telling me to endure all this in the meanwhile?” one woman present at the meeting asked the district mayor. “Can’t you tell we need a solution now? Are you telling us this is the only solution you have regarding the plane nuisance?”

“Of course there are other solutions and we are working on changes in the legislation so that more of the residents affected in this area can also receive support from the government,” Kim said. “But I need you to tell me, after having used the devices for a few months, whether you think they worked so that the district office can decide whether to offer them more widely in the area. I know what you’re going through, I also live in an affected region.”

As Kim finished her sentence, another plane flew over, drowning her voice out.

A number of residents spoke at once as the buzz of the plane rumbled away.

“I’m telling you, this will not work,” Lee said. “Maybe the device would work in an indoor area, but do we stay at home all the time? We’re asking for a more fundamental solution. If you cannot pay us the compensation fees, then at least pay for our move somewhere else.”

“The government should just buy this land here and help us move elsewhere,” said another resident, who asked not to be named.

Kim left the meeting after having assured the residents the district is doing all it can to convince lawmakers to adjust the law regarding compensation for those affected by the plane noise.


Residents of Sinwol-dong, Yangcheon District, western Seoul, meet with the district mayor at a local community center on Oct. 1 to discuss the latest technological solution for the frequent noise of airplanes flying over their neighborhood due to its proximity to Gimpo International Airport. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Time and investment

The gap in the city administration’s smart city policies and the citizens’ understanding of them, like in the case of some projects in Sinwol-dong, has been an issue for city administrations around the world.

“People have been doing things a certain way for a years and they don’t like to change,” said Berain. “It is easy to fail when you force people to do things. The best way is to try to convince people that what we are trying to implement is best for them and also for the city.”

“For instance, I think some smart cities in Korea like Songdo made enormous progress, but the challenge is to take advantage of the extraordinary technology progress in a way that does not lose sight of the human factor,” said Richard Smith, president of the Pinkerton Foundation, at the Seoul International Business Advisory Council on Sept. 20. “In other words, there is a need to engage citizens in creations of their own urban environment.”

Some projects, like the noise-canceling devices in Sinwol-dong, may simply be in need of more time.

“There can be resistance to new products and new technology,” Won told the Korea JoongAng Daily over the phone following the meeting at the community center in Sinwol-dong, Yangcheon. “We’ll have to wait until the people have experienced whether the technology works for them or not.”

Regarding other smart city projects in Seoul, it may simply be that more investment is needed in the infrastructure to support the use of emerging technology.

Seongdong District - the other one of the two special smart city districts of Seoul - has focused its smart city experiments on environmental conservation. It built one solar-powered electric vehicle charging station, which is one out of three in Seoul built by local governments, 11 fine dust sensors at bus stops, schools and construction sites and IoT programmed air purification systems in three day care centers.

“It’s all good to experiment with these projects, but what Seoul truly needs to be on the next step toward becoming smarter is an automated meter infrastructure [AMI],” said Lee Kyung-taek, head of the air quality department of Seongdong District Office who is in charge of all smart city experiments in the district. “AMI would enable all energy use in every building in the city to be connected and regulated, which means we can be smarter about our energy use. Research about the infrastructure has been done since the Lee Myung-bak administration but the government has not been willing to invest in it as the AMI conversion is expected to cost at least 1 trillion won.”

There is a city in the United States that has applied the AMI technology to a regional water supply system.

“We invested $21 million for the AMI conversion and we’ll be getting our payback in about 10 years,” said Vernon Adam, engineering services manager of the water department of Aurora city government in Colorado, at the conference of World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization on Oct. 15. “We have so far installed a part of the system, and we will get our feedback from the people before we go live. Total deployment will take four years, but we will take our time, because in the long term, we are empowering citizens to conserve water by engaging them in the process.”

In the case of Aurora, Adam said, the benefits “far outweighed the costs” due to expensive water rights in the western part of the United States.

“You need city leaders who are willing to embrace this change,” Adam said. “Because it takes that vision to implement these new technologies.”

For some experts, developing into smarter cities is not a matter of choice.

“AI gives a machine the ability to reason and have human-like characteristics,” said Daniela Rus, professor of computer science at MIT, at the Seoul International Business Advisory Council on Sept. 20. “Together these new technologies are enabling a future that has the same profound impact that computation has had in our lives. Autonomous driving, for instance, will give our parents and grandparents a much better time after retirement. It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when.”

She emphasized, however, that at the center of these developments will always be humans, not machines.

“AI is a set of tools created by the people,” she said. “It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s what we choose to do with them.”

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