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Q&A with M.I.T.

A.G.N.E.S. Suit

We caught up with Dr. Joseph Coughlin, PhD and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab for this Q&A:

What is the origin of the AgeLab?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab was established in 1999 to translate technologies into practical solutions across the lifespan. The AgeLab’s initial focus was on older drivers.

At that time, I recognized that the U.S. transportation system was neither prepared nor designed to handle the rising population of older adults and that this had major implications for the ability of Americans to age with dignity and independence.

Since then, the AgeLab has expanded its scope beyond transportation, to encompass four main domains of research: Retirement and Longevity Planning, Wellbeing and Caregiving, Home Logistics and Services, and Transportation and Livable Communities. Understanding the intersecting role(s) of technology is integral to everything we do.

Today, the AgeLab works with academic, business, policy, and NGO communities to develop a deeper understanding of aging over the lifespan, creating a portrait of not just the needs, but also the ever-evolving aims, ambitions and aspirations of an aging population —always with the goal of building a better life tomorrow.

What was the inspiration behind AGNES? What was it originally developed for?

AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) is a suit worn by students, product developers, designers, engineers, marketing, planners, architects, packaging engineers, and others to provide insight into the some of the physical changes older adults experience as they age. Developed by AgeLab researchers and students, AGNES has been calibrated to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, dexterity and strength of a person in their mid-70s. More specifically, AGNES can be used to simultaneously simulate reduced joint mobility, increased muscular fatigue, spinal compression, challenges with both gross and fine motor tasks, and difficulty with vision and balance. By putting a person in AGNES, they can be transported into the direct experience of empathy.

How does the AgeLab use AGNES in their research? What are some examples of projects where AGNES made an impact?

In addition to providing an empathy experience for the wearer, AGNES has been used as a tool to evaluate products and environments including retail, public transportation, homes, communities, automobiles, and workplaces. Researchers at the AgeLab have used AGNES to help CVS create their “store of the future” and multiple companies to examine their packaging, marketing, and related design elements The AgeLab has also worked with the Metro Boston Transportation Authority and the London Tube using AGNES to discover aspects of the subway systems that might not be working as well for older adults as they could be. Additionally, AGNES has been used as a teaching and empathy tool with students who aspire to work with older adults- for example, with medical students at Harvard University and with high school students pursuing careers in healthcare.

What role does empathy play in what the AgeLab does?

AGNES is one of the more well recognized tools the MIT AgeLab employs to build empathy. However, empathy plays a large role in many dimensions of AgeLab research and initiatives. One overarching goal of our work is to urge professionals to reflect on how they can be more empathic toward clients to better understand and plan for future wants, needs, and aspirations. Our research also attempts to discover and communicate how people of different ages, generations, and backgrounds experience the world differently and what these differences and similarities means for the design of products, policies, services, and spaces.

What is something that AgeLab does that people wouldn’t expect?

I mentioned earlier that the AgeLab got its start by studying transportation. We still hold onto that tradition today through our transportation research, including studying the ways in which current and future advanced vehicle technologies will transform the way we live, work, and age. We currently conduct numerous on-road studies to understand how people interact with the dizzying array of new technologies that are in today’s vehicles. That may not sound much like “aging research,” but again, we have an end vision that more human-centered technology, whether it’s in the car, the home, in our phones or anywhere else, can transform where we live, how we connect, and, ultimately, how we age successfully.

If you could show a young person their life thirty or more years into the future, what would you hope that they would discover that might change their lives today?

The AgeLab did a study on the language people use to talk about retirement, and empirically speaking, the vocabulary we have available to us to describe this period is constrained. Because we are experiencing a longevity bonus, one that previous generations didn’t experience, we don’t have any stories or guideposts to direct our thinking and get us excited about this new period in our lives.

What I hope people would discover is that a century of improvements in our medical care and quality of life has given us a whole new phase of life, multiple decades of life, that is wide open for opportunity, creative thinking and new endeavors.

How has COVID affected or changed AgeLab’s work? What is the AgeLab currently working on?

As you might expect, COVID has caused us to turn to study COVID itself – its impacts on our social structures, the strain it’s putting on older adults and caregivers, and how it’s causing an abrupt acceleration of technology adoption that’s unlike anything we’ve seen. The AgeLab could be its own exemplary case of COVID adaptation. We do everything by Zoom for the time being, and I don’t think our work has really suffered much at all for it. In some ways, it might be better. We send out surveys, we conduct interviews and focus groups, we analyze and contemplate our results just like we did before – now we just do it all online. Our ability to host and bring people to events, webinars and symposia and the like, in some ways has been augmented by the mass adoption of telepresence technology. People can join us from anywhere. In November we hosted a two-day virtual symposium on the intersection of artificial intelligence and longevity. The rate of knowledge-sharing and connection was thrilling. As it has been for countless other people and organizations, the technology that has helped us to carry on through all this will remain a fundamental part of our lives and work.

What are your or the AgeLab goals for 2021?

As always, we are looking forward to growing our research partnerships and initiatives to further our understanding of life today and better prepare for life tomorrow. With the need for intergenerational programming more urgent than ever, one of our goals is to continue to support high school students across the United States who have been champions of intergenerational programming in their communities through OMEGA’s (Opportunities for Multigenerational Engagement, Growth, and Action) ongoing events and college scholarships. continuing to expand our participant bases. An additional goal is to continue to grow the MIT AgeLab 85+ Lifestyle Leaders Panel, a now-national research panel comprised of adults ages 85 and over. The 85+ Lifestyle Leaders Panel is an invaluable opportunity to learn what is means to truly be at the leading edge of longevity. Also, building on our existing research, a goal we have is to recruit more caregivers into CareHive in order to understand the challenges and opportunities presented by family caregiving. Finally, we have multiple research consortia at the MIT AgeLab that we plan to continue to grow, including our C3 Connected Home Logistics Consortium and PLAN (Preparing for Longevity Advisory Network), our global panel of financial professionals defining the future of advice.