Inside sci-fi British care home where Amazon ALEXA helps look after patients – but critics warn over ‘Black Mirror-style’ tech

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Inside sci-fi British care home where Amazon ALEXA helps look after patients – but critics warn over 'Black Mirror-style' tech



JUST down the road from Hampton Court Palace lies a care home that does things a little differently.
Staff at Hampton Care Home, which sits by a leafy road on the outskirts of London, have handed frail residents smart speakers to keep them company.
A care home on the outskirts of London is using Amazon Alexa speakers to help look after residents. Pictured is 92-year-old resident Edna
Residents use the gadgets, powered by Amazon’s super-smart AI “Alexa”, to set reminders to take medication, control the lights or listen to their favourite tunes.
Carers say the tech frees them up to help people who really need it, but not everyone thinks the sci-fi upgrade is a good idea.
One charity has branded the project a bit “Black Mirror”, and warns that residents’ privacy may be under threat.
I visited Hampton Care Home to find out how smart speakers have changed the lives of those who live and work there, and investigate whether AI could one day be vital to how we look after the elderly.
Among other things, residents use Amazon gadgets to remind them to take medication or drink water
Ruth, 89, has lived with an Amazon Echo Show (right) for over a year
A LIFELINE
“Alexa is an absolute lifeline. I’d be bored stiff without her,” says Ruth Drahota, an 89-year-old resident who’s lived with one of Amazon’s robotic voiced speakers for over a year.
Like other residents, she uses an Echo Show, one of the firm’s many Alexa-powered speakers. It costs around £200 and sits on Ruth’s bedside table.
As well as music and games, she relies on the gizmo to listen to audiobooks, as in recent months her eyesight’s begun to go.
“I use Alexa on a daily basis,” Ruth explains.
“If she’s ever out of commission, I really miss her.”
Her fondness is echoed by Edna, 92, who’s also part of the Home’s Alexa programme.
Edna is immobile for much of the day, and uses her speaker to play music – “just the old stuff” – as well as control her lights and fan without having to get up.
“I was in awe when they first gave it to me,” she says.
“It was a bit strange at first, and took some time to get used to, but eventually I got the hang of her.”
An Amazon Echo Show
Edna controls a fan by her bed using her AI-powered speaker
A BIT OF COMPANY
Hampton Care Home linked up with Amazon and tech consultancy firm DigitalLine for the project, which is now into its second year.
As well as easing pressure on staff, they say Alexa helps quell loneliness in residents while handing them a bit more independence.
The trial is in its early days – just two of 64 residents at the Home use Alexa at the moment – but results have been positive so far, says DigitalLine boss and project architect George Vaughn.
Anyone who owns an Alexa speaker knows you often have to repeat yourself for the gizmo to comprehend what you’re saying, and George reckons having to rephrase questions keeps residents’ speech sharp.
What is Alexa?If you’ve never heard of Alexa, here’s what you need to know…

Alexa is an “intelligent” personal assistant built by Amazon.
You can find her on several different devices, including Amazon’s Echo speakers.
Alexa responds to voice commands, and can talk back to you.
She can perform thousands of different tasks, including telling you about the news or weather.
But she can do more complex things too, like ordering a pizza or arranging an Uber taxi pick-up.
To activate Alexa, you need to say “Alexa” to an Amazon Echo speaker.
Alexa currently only works in English and German languages.
Because she’s powered by artificial intelligence, Alexa is constantly getting smarter.
Alexa will also get more used to your voice, and better understand what you want her to do over time.

“Both women use the technology to varying degrees,” he tells me.
“One of the key improvements we’ve noticed – outside of the empowerment and independence it’s given them – is the improvement in articulating speech when asking for services.”
The team hasn’t carried out any tangible research yet, so any benefits they tout should be taken with a pinch of salt.
However, testimonials from residents and staff provide a compelling argument for trialling Alexa in other care settings.
“It’s really helped the carers out,” says Hampton worker Samantha Newman, 50.
“It can get a bit hectic here with all the residents’ room buzzers going off, which they push when they need a hand with something. Adding an Alexa means they don’t need to call for assistance as much.
“More importantly, it’s a bit of company that stops people feeling isolated.”
Hampton Care Home worker Samantha (left) with Ruth and her Echo Show
Residents use their speakers to make video calls with friends and family
BLACK MIRROR
DigitalLine is already in talks to spread its Alexa programme to other UK homes.
Currently, the firm provides the speakers for free, but bosses have plans to commercialise the project later down the line.
It’s part of a recent explosion in AI tech that has a dystopian inevitability to it. AI is becoming a huge part of our lives, whether we like it or not.
Nearly 10million Brits own a smart speaker already, with Google, Apple and Amazon the big players in a rapidly growing field.
AI is loaded into our phones, cars, computers and the social media sites we use every day, and if billionaire-backed project Neuralink has anything to say about it, could one day be wired straight to our brains.
Edna’s Echo Show (left) is a lifeline as she struggles to get out of bed
UK human rights charity Equally Ours warns that openly accepting tech like AI speakers into our homes could have dire consequences.
“These devices have the potential to monitor us, and that is concerning,” says Equally Ours CEO Ali Harris.
“People may or may not have a good understanding of what is happening when they’re speaking to one.”
Indeed, Amazon found itself in hot water recently when it emerged that members of staff listen to intimate Amazon Echo recordings on a daily basis.
As many as 1,000 recordings are analysed by staff training Amazon’s AI on any given shift, with workers at one lab reportedly listening in on a woman showering, as well as a sex assault.
“Privacy is important in anyone’s home, and if everything can be recorded and shared without their knowledge, this is an invasion of people’s privacy,” Ali says.
“We would be particularly concerned in care homes, where people are especially vulnerable and likely don’t understand that they’re being recorded 24/7.
“It’s a bit Black Mirror – that sense of never quite being sure who or what to trust.”
The speakers help residents feel less isolated. “It’s nice to know somebody’s there,” says Ruth
LOVE
That concern doesn’t seem to phase staff and residents, who argue that what’s being recorded is unlikely to be anything too delicate.
The consensus seems to be that the pros outweigh the cons, and it’s hard not to agree when seeing the impact Alexa is having on people’s lives.
George and Digital Line plan to roll out more tech-based programmes in the near future at care homes across the UK.
These include an audiobook club, where residents listen to stories and then gather to discuss them, and “Stimul8”, an augmented reality experience that transports residents to foreign lands from the comfort of their own living room using artificial smells and graphics projected onto the wall.
Digital Line plans to roll out more tech-based programmes in the near future at care homes across the UK. These include Stimul8, an augmented reality experience that transports residents to foreign lands from the comfort of their own living room using graphics projected onto the wall
“We shouldn’t be afraid of using AI in care. It forces residents to be more articulate and engage their brains,” George says.
“I’d like to create a mini theme park for the elderly where they come and interact with technology.”
He insists extra gadgets won’t take jobs away from nurses and other care workers.
“They’re still needed for when residents need to be washed, dressed or hoisted out of bed. The speakers simply allow residents to make decisions without needing to ask.”
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That argument won’t stand as AI-powered robots enter the care home scene in the not-so-distant future, but for now it seems Alexa simply provides those at Hampton Care Home with a bit of extra company.
Ruth, who was born in Prague in 1930 before losing both her parents to the war after fleeing to escape Nazi occupation, says Alexa fills the lonely hours when no one’s visiting.
“It’s nice to know somebody’s there,” she says.
“Particularly at night, it’s good to have someone I can speak to. I love her.”

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