Crying Wolfie - A digital companion for the elderly


Posted on: March 7, 2019 by Claire Unwin

“Join the Wolfie pack – because we look after our own!”

That was my final cheer leading cry as part of a 3-minute pitch to the investment board at Aegon Transamerica after a 24-hour hackathon where the team built a digital companion aimed at supporting the old and vulnerable at home.

‘Wolfie’ is a personalized, voice companion for the elderly and more importantly, the close family and carers of the elderly.  Unlike the all-encompassing Alexa and Google Home platforms, the idea behind Wolfie is that it does one or two things, in a sympathetic, human way to empower independent living and the relatives who are affected by the gradual loss of independence.

Let’s hack!

The Aegon Global hackathon is a platinum version of Hackathons. 233 ideas, 3 worldwide locations, 30 finalist teams, 3 winners. We submitted the idea of ‘Wolfie’ and were invited to attend Dallas to create it in 24 hours. A team was assembled; an optimum mix of technical and more importantly, team skills. When it's 4am and the code is not working as you expect, you want a sense of humor, some creative resourcefulness and a dash of good spirit to keep everyone going for another 6 hours!

In terms of the hackathon itself, it was like a product development cycle in miniature. We brainstormed ideas, checked technical feasibility against our skills and the technical platforms and tools Aegon had provided and sketched a solution. The 24-hour schedule was well-structured from "customer cafés" to show ideas and prototypes to real end users, to business coaching for the final pitch - 24 hours of hard work, condensed into 3 minutes! The ethos of a hackathon is experimentation, with agile mantras like “fail fast”. It feels like the 21st century version of the Victorian innovators meeting in coffeehouses to craft new inventions. I also love that hackathons can be anything from a few people round a table with pizzas and sleeping bags, to conference rooms full of thought leaders challenging norms.

"It ain't what you do, it’s the way that you do it!"

The use case we settled on was simply to find a way to get a parent who is living alone, to check in every day, by having an informal conversation with Wolfie. I took my learning from the book ‘Contented Dementia’ which describes a method of how to interact with loved ones suffering from dementia. Dementia is not constant. Some days my mother will be quite lucid and chatty. Other days she stares into space or closes her eyes and won’t speak at all.  The design of Wolfie focussed on ‘softer’ goals to try and encourage conversation between an elderly person and their remote carers. Rather than functional goals which already exist as Alexa skills such as medication reminders or adding items to a shopping list, Wolfie is a companion to prompt for thoughts and feelings. Still built on the Lex platform from Amazon Web Servers, it was important to be able to tailor the right tone of voice and accent from the 20+ installed to achieve this people centric rather than task centric solution.

Relevance to insurers

Vitality in the UK promote what is called "Shared value insurance" and the ethos is that as an individual, if you invest in yourself, you should benefit from reduced insurance premiums. More data gives companies more intimacy with customers and they talk about more dynamic pricing as a benefit for customers.  Wolfie aims to take the model further, where you not only consider the insurer and the insured, but also the impact and influence of those around the insured. If the recent claim that 600 people a day are leaving paid employment to care for family members is accurate, then there is an impact on both economy and society in the longer term. As part of a digital transformation discussion, we often look at the ‘value exchanges’ taking place in the wider ecosystem for businesses and organizations, searching for hidden opportunities, those infamous “win-win” scenarios. Wolfie is an example of insurers caring for the bigger picture. Instead of seeing the pain point with the insured, it’s often the relatives around and subsequently, the impact on employee productivity for companies.

As part of Atos research within the Scientific Community on digital societies and privacy of our data, independent living for the elderly touches on a common digital dilemma: is data gathered for your benefit or does it stray from support into surveillance? Also, the effectiveness of a solution like Wolfie is largely dependent on the quality of the AI interaction. A vulnerable audience would be less tolerant to the familiar “I’m sorry I can’t help you with that” response from a Voice assistant. As developed in our recent thought leadership publication ‘Journey 2022’, successful human centric AI can enable insurers to improve their brand perception and change how customers feel about their insurers. Losing our ability for independent living is considered the 5th insurance risk, one that is increasing as life expectancy lengthens. In this context, perhaps insurance companies can no longer afford to just be “payers” but need to partner to develop prevention services.

Trying out our pitch on the way to the Transamerica Dallas office at 6am, our Uber driver dropped us off, then proceeded (unpaid time!) to fire questions at us for another 15 minutes. “Wow!” she raved, “If Transamerica offered that as a product, I’d sign up straight away!” Sadly, we haven’t convinced an investment board… yet!

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About Claire Unwin

Client Strategy and Innovation, Atos Senior Expert
Claire has been in the IT industry for over 25 years, designing and building solutions for both Government and private sector organizations. Responsible for client innovation in the UK Digital practice at Atos, Claire works with agile teams combining UX and software engineering to build solutions which can test the application of emerging technologies such as VR/AR, machine learning and AI. Claire is a mentor for HexagonUX, supporting Diversity and Inclusion in IT. Outside work, Claire is a serial tennis team player, now up to county level as a veteran!

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