Human-Computer Interaction and Ethics: How Do Older Australians Engage with Technology?

7th July 2020


  • ACS Education sat down for a virtual chat with PY student Derani Dissanayake to discuss her interest in supporting the active and ethical use of technology among the elderly population. 
  • Read more where we discuss topics ranging from the management of digital legacy assets, to using technology-based therapy as an alternative treatment for patients suffering from dementia.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your qualifications and specialist area of ICT interest?

I did my undergraduate degree in Computer Science – Software Engineering. Then completed a Master of Computer Science by research on the topic of Digital Legacies. My academic thesis was titled ‘The Challenges of Digital Legacy Management on the Value of Digital Objects to Older Australians’.

2. What are digital legacies and why are they important?

What happens to our digital assets when we pass away is often something we haven’t given much thought to, yet it poses many ethical and legal challenges when we consider our digital footprint and the number of digital objects we create – from something as seemingly innocuous like a social media profile, to something more complex, yet cryptocurrency. All digital objects have a value, determined by a specific framework, measured in both negative, positive and neutral terms – an asset can have a value of -0. But value is subjective in that it changes depending on the person and the scale used to measure it. For example, an asset can be evaluated in the context of its financial, historical, legal or sentimental worth to the individual. 

If you do not define what is going to happen to your digital objects or assets when you die other external parties will gain access to them. If you do not give instructions on what you want to happen to the status of your cloud account or social media presence, for instance, in the event of your death, tech companies will make those decisions for you.

According to my research findings, most people were under the false assumption that control of these assets would be passed on to their children or the beneficiaries listed in their will.

3.  What inspired your academic research into this particular field of technology and ethics?

I came across a lot of digital assets once held by individuals who are no longer in control of them. They are being used by another party, such as a tech company that owns the online platform hosting the object. For instance, some of my friends who have passed away still have active Facebook accounts, even though they are no longer in possession of them. Physically, you’ve died, but digitally you are still alive. It is easy to transfer physical objects, but digital ones are harder to move. 

When you have no control over how your asset is being used, this becomes a question of ethics. 

Computer science is a branch of ICT in which the impact of technology is explored and questioned - I have a strong interest in the ethics around how different technologies are used by individuals and how we use them collectively which will shape our future society.

4.  Where are you completing your Professional Year internship placement and how is it helping you to achieve your career goals?

My reason for enrolling in the PY program was to gain employment in ICT, so my focus was to obtain an internship role that complements my previous research and improves my job prospects in the industry. In January we advised our education provider of our internship preferences and were given the option to nominate our preferred internship roles. I was specific in the type of internship opportunity I was looking for and listed 8-10 potential host companies that I would like to be placed with, and my provider reached out and contacted them directly. Two agreed to interview me, and I was then offered an internship at Edith Cowan University, which I am currently completing in their research department.

I also work part-time in the aged care sector, so I have an interest in how older Australians use technology, and if it can provide an alternative therapeutic tool to assist geriatric patients suffering from behavioral problems as a result of incurable diseases and other disorders affecting the brain, such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

5.  What research projects have you been involved in during your internship?

The whole world is looking for a cure for dementia but rather than this we could have a technology-based therapy to reduce the behaviors of patients with Dementia. This could make a difference in the lives of people with Dementia and their families, carers, and aged care workers. 

Hopefully I will begin my PhD later this year – my academic research will be on virtual reality as a therapy for people with Dementia. This is the initial stage of the research and in this 12-week period the gaps and limitations regarding the use of VR to treat this condition are investigated, which involves mapping the clinical, technological and legal aspects. Currently we use pharmacological treatments to address the symptoms of the disease and restrain the negative behaviors exhibited by these patients. The aim is to complement or replace these chemical interventions with a technological component. In the future this could potentially extend to the treatment of other disorders.

6. How exactly would virtual reality technology be used to benefit these patients and have any challenges been identified with the use of VR as a therapeutic tool?

In my experience working in the aged care sector, many patients suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease experience agitation and anxiety as a result of the condition, particularly when isolated and disconnected from their families, especially if they do not visit them often, so we can create a virtual environment that replicates an activity they often did or hobby they had prior to the onset of the disease, which may provide some comfort when they are distressed. For example, if they once had a career as a baker, and spent their working years making and decorating cakes, we can potentially create an opportunity for them to engage with a simulated baking environment, which may trigger their memory and allow them to potentially relive the experience of doing something they enjoy which can control and alleviate the impact of their behaviors. In the future this could perhaps extend to the treatment of other disorders, too. 

The main issue identified is which memories to virtualise, as it is a person-centric experience.

7. It must be exciting being involved in such exciting research on technological innovations that can make such a difference to people suffering from these diseases. What is the next step for you once you complete your placement and graduate from the PY program?

I eventually want to work in a research lab, and explore Gerontechnology, which I am really interested in. It’s a sub-category of human computer interaction that focuses on how older people use technology. I am passionate about creating more opportunities for them to interact with computers in an ethical manner.

Thanks for chatting to ACS about your passion for the ethical use of technology, it is inspiring to hear from PY students, because as young ICT professionals you are part of the tech workforce of the future – wishing you all the best with your career journey.



About the Interview

This week, ACS Education sat down for a virtual chat with PY student Derani Dissanayake to discuss her interest in supporting the active and ethical use of technology among the elderly population. Derani is a PY student and has completed her Masters in Computer Science by research on the topic of digital legacies. 

To read more about Derani’s research, you can view her LinkedIn profile.