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A growing number of consumer technology companies are trying to convince older adults that having a humanoid AI powered device with interactive voice features is a helpful tool to support aging-in-place. The array of functions such devices are marketed to perform include many already featured in common voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, while other functions are more specific to older people, including health and safety monitoring and serving to mitigate loneliness. These devices, such as Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ, are not exactly medical devices, not exactly security systems, and not mere digital assistants: instead, they are multi-function, network coordinating devices with a robotic persona. As such, they implicate older people’s autonomy and privacy in complex ways.
In this paper, we examine one particularly sticky problem arising from use of such devices for health and mental wellness support: namely, how can these devices ensure informed consent – a mainstay of both bioethics and data protection – when they are not clearly governed by a comprehensive set of rules, neither from the perspective of elder care nor as a digital consumer product? To approach this central question, the paper maps how informed consent is problematized and which solutions are proposed across several domains: human-computer interaction (HCI); healthcare ethics; privacy law; and empirical studies of potential device users’ attitudes toward such devices, including our own study with 200 older adults in Canada. The paper unpacks two prominent conceptual figures frequently employed to talk about the complexity of autonomy and independence in this context: the trade-off and the paradox. In doing so, the paper advances law and society scholarship on informed consent as contextualized in the datasphere, particularly, the consent of older adults subject to various types of monitoring through one AI powered humanoid device.