The fear of dementia threatens everyone. Yet, imagine if your Alexa device were able to enhance thinking capabilities?

By Jack Cumming

Suddenly, talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems to be everywhere. For some, it forebodes a scary time when HAL, the computer, will take over and subjugate flesh and blood humans. For others, it signifies a Brave New World with work weeks reduced to three four-hour days.   

Jack Ma, the Chinese entrepreneur, foresaw such shortened work weeks recently at the conference in Canada. His perception: people are just as busy today as they were 150 years ago when 12-hour work days and six- or seven-day work weeks were the norm.


The fear of dementia threatens everyone. Imagine, though, that you could extend your mind, just as other tools extend your capabilities. What if your Alexa device, were able to help you think? Alexa might ask politely, “Sally, is that what you really want to do?” Already, Extended Intelligence . . . as I prefer to think of it . . . is helping to counter diminished awareness among those aging people who still drive. Rearview cameras and automated braking save lives.

Can AI enhance thinking capabilities – judgment, knowledge, repartee? If so, can enhanced thinking capabilities offset diminished capacity in the elderly? That wouldn’t be a cure for dementia, but it sure is exciting to contemplate. You don’t have to be old to sense age-related challenges. Thank heavens for spell check and calendar reminders.

An Unlikely Innovator

Who would have thought that the Hasbro Toy Company would be in the forefront of bringing AI to senior living? Still, that’s what’s happening. Recently, the National Science Foundation announced a $1 million grant to Hasbro and Brown University to develop jointly the AI capabilities of Hasbro’s animated creatures, now a cat and a dog. Hasbro was inspired by the expensive Paro Seal to create its “Joy For All” initiative, at first with an emphasis on social support for elderly dementia victims.

The grant suggests that the project team harness “novel research insights from the cognitive and behavioral sciences, geriatric psychiatry, computer science, and industrial design, as well as industry partner Hasbro’s expertise in effective, affordable engineering.” Wow, that’s a pedantic mouthful. My take is that the grant is to develop Alexa-type technology for the Hasbro animated toy line. That could be useful in helping those with memory loss to remember things.

Is it Creepy?

Can you imagine yourself with a cuddly pet? Recently, when the Hasbro initiative was discussed, one person remarked, “That’s creepy!” and another asked, “Aren’t there enough living pets available from shelters?” We all know of the role of service dogs and, more recently, of professional comfort dogs. Do we need a toy to take the place of a living dog? Maybe not, though when we think of the AI potential that can seem like asking, “Do we need horseless carriages to take the place of living horses?” That, too, must have seemed “creepy” in its day.

It seems fair to say that within every adult lurks a child. The toy vehicles of boyhood emerge later in life as sports cars, and we love to whoosh from here to there in an envied vehicle. Childhood dolls, too, prepare us for later adult joys and responsibilities. Dementia brings us back to childhood, so it’s not surprising that a toy company can show us one way to help the very old.  

There’s room for toys in the lives of all people. Hasbro’s idea of toys as “Joy For All” is an idea whose time has come. Let’s all find an animated pet to cuddle and to help us remember where we’ve left our keys.