Talking to the internet – how to get millions of over 55s online

Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that 4.8m of over 55s are still offline - they represent 94% of the remaining people in the UK who have yet to go digital, according to the charity Ageing Better. Without concerted efforts, this group will increasingly miss out on essential online services, says the charity. Let’s talk about ‘the conversational internet’ and how it could help some of those people.

Digital made simple

Getting online is a challenge. For the digitally uninitiated (and even for those who are pretty savvy) It requires a level of knowledge about how to interact with technology that isn’t acquired overnight. It takes months if not years to be confident about what to do when an unfamiliar pop-up asks you an often worryingly obscure question, and even more digital nouse to trouble-shoot something on a computer or tablet when things go wrong.

While it’s no longer necessary to read an instruction manual to use a tablet or smartphone, or worry whether your tablet’s antivirus is up-to-date (or indeed if it even has one), anyone who has had to support a relative or friend in the early/on-going stages of initiation into the world of mobile tapping, swiping and scrolling will know that things are still far from simple.

Pictured: Amazon Echo Show, Echo and Echo Spot

Echo Show with screenAmazon Echo Echo spot

The conversational internet

What could be easier than natural, conversational speech as a way of interfacing with today’s diverse digital world? I’ve discussed voice assistants in several recent posts: how simply speaking to the air and getting useful information, being entertained and even performing sophisticated tasks is the next significant chapter in computing. Do check out these posts for the full picture on how natural language and 'ambient computing' (voice-first smart assistants which can live in a range of devices) will form a significant feature in all our digital futures:

The older, less digitally adept generation and those of all ages with disabilities may well benefit most from these advancements in more natural and conversational interactions with the digital world.

If some devices have screens then great – additional information or the face of a loved-one can be displayed, and people who are deaf will have spoken information presented visually. For those who can hear and speak, at the heart of these devices is the ability to communicate with them conversationally and with increasing flexibility. 

We’re certainly not anywhere near satisfying the toughest trial of AI – the Turing test – but we’re getting closer every week. In the meantime, government at all levels and companies of all sizes are focusing budgets and resources towards the future of the internet - a future where services delivered through the conversational internet may be even more significant than the standard digital delivery channels of today. Tapping has already exceeded clicking. Similarly, speaking will undoubtedly one day outstrip tapping as the main method in which most people conduct their digital lives.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. Find more of his blogs here. 

If you'd like help getting online or would like an AbilityNet volunteer to help you get online, call 0800 269 454 or email