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Brewer: “We don’t think about older adults enough as a society.”

Robin Brewer stands with both her arms at her hips, wearing a sweater and smiling into the camera.

Monday, 03/04/2024

At the forefront of technology and disability justice is University of Michigan School of Information assistant professor Robin Brewer. Recently named one of ten scientists “on the cusp of changing the world” by Popular Science, Brewer’s research is asking difficult questions about aging, disability and how to build accessible technology. 

Brewer earned her PhD in technology and social behavior from Northwestern University. She joined UMSI in 2017 as a postdoctoral research fellow. Since then, she’s been conducting research on designing voice technologies for older adults and their caregivers, disability representation in language learning models and privacy concerns of disabled people when using AI-powered assistive technologies. 

Her scholarship has earned her numerous awards and fellowships, including a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award, a 2023 Anita Borg Early Career Award from the Computer Researching Association and a UMSI faculty award for her excellence in community-engaged research, outstanding service and instruction. She is a co-leader for AHA (accessibility, HCI and aging). 

Here, Brewer talks about her path to human-computer interaction, her love of teaching and her hobbies. 

Tell us about your research interests. 

My research focuses on how older people and people with disabilities can be represented in technology design. A lot of it has looked at voice technologies because they can be more accessible for people with motor disabilities or visual disabilities. For example, voice technologies like smart speakers, but also voice technologies for people who don’t have internet access in their homes or use landline phones. 

How can we redesign interactions with landlines so older people can engage online asynchronously? How can we design them so they’re easier to use and they respond in ways that align with older adult expectations? 

I’m also working in areas my students are interested in as it relates to aging and disability. One of my students is working on a project around technology and using it to supplement the care routines humans engage in. There’s a lot of work that shows communication is a big barrier for families communicating with their loved ones. How can we use technology, specifically voice technologies, to scaffold difficult care-related conversations? 

I also have a student working on better ways for AI systems to explain visual information to blind and low vision people. And then I have a student who is really interested in memory and archiving as it relates to older adults. How do older people collect artifacts and memories throughout their lives and how do they store that, particularly when they’re thinking about downsizing? 

Robin poses in the Michigan Union atrium, with old stone walls and simple stained glass windows framed in wood, while wearing a vibrant shirt of hues of purple with yellow lines.

What interests you in the intersection of technology and aging? 

I think a lot of my interest with aging populations and older adults comes from my experience of seeing my own family interact with technology. I think my family takes more of a technology-last approach. And on the one hand, they’re cautious of it but they’re also overly trusting of it. 

I’m thinking about some family members who don’t have internet access in their homes and they feel a bit cut off from the world. I’m thinking about technology in a broader sense, like landline phones, or ways people can interact with technology without using a screen, because that can be overwhelming. 

I'm also considering the intersection of disability and aging because late-life disability is so common. That’s what pushed me into thinking beyond aging and into more of an accessibility space. 

We don’t think about older adults enough as a society, especially with technology use. We assume they won’t use it and that the technology is moving faster than them, so what’s the point of ever catching up, right? 

But there are plenty of people who were some of the first users of the internet from their experience in the workforce or the military. They can be very digitally active and curious. And when we disregard them, it cuts them off from so much. We have to shift the narrative rather than isolating them. 

Are there projects you wish you had more time to pursue? 

There’s a lot around voice-based systems that is underexplored. As a postdoc, I started researching automated vehicles for blind and low-vision people. This is a big deal because if you have access to transportation, you have access to more resources. For blind and low-vision people who legally cannot drive, transportation is limited, especially in rural areas where it’s very expensive to use Uber or Lyft or taxis and you may have less access to disability focused transit systems. 

There are a lot of open questions around automated vehicles, and there are a lot of policy barriers. A lot of tech companies are focused on mobility disabilities because there are fewer policy barriers that make progress with sensory disabilities more difficult. 

How did you end up in the field of information? Did you know at 18 or 19 years old that this is the field you wanted to pursue? 

Not at all. I went to college at the University of Maryland and I studied computer science. I did well in math-related classes, but I didn’t enjoy the programming classes as much, mostly because I couldn’t see the impact of the work. I stumbled into human-computer interaction (HCI) when I was in a psychology class. There were folks coming in and talking about different careers, and one person was working in the HCI field. They described HCI as blending psychology, computer science and design, and that sounded interesting to me. 

I wanted to better understand how people make decisions. Why do people behave the way they do with technology? I started research as an undergraduate student in the HCI space and that progressed into grad school and where I am now. 

How long have you been teaching and what do you love most about it? 

Robin poses in the Michigan Union atrium, with old stone walls and simple stained glass windows framed in wood, while wearing a vibrant shirt of hues of purple with yellow lines.

I really love when you can see that ‘aha’ moment for a student when they begin applying their experience in the classroom outside of the classroom. Or they say, ‘hey I got a job interview and I talked about this project from class.’ It’s fun to witness that. 

I’m advising one MSI student, four PhD students, and two postdocs right now. I love seeing them be critical and curious. They’re brainstorming how methods that work in one context could apply to another context and they’re quickly seeing gaps in different disciplines. On the PhD side of things, everything is so interdisciplinary, especially in the context of aging and disability. There are so many bodies of literature and being able to synthesize, communicate and critically think about so many aspects is important. 

Tell us something surprising about you. 

When people first meet me, they’re usually surprised I do CrossFit. I’m not the greatest at it, but I am good at climbing ropes and learning handstand walks. I like CrossFit because it’s different every time. It’s rare we repeat the same workout within a year. It keeps me on my toes. Even more surprising, I competed in my first Olympic weightlifting meet last fall!

What are you working on now? 

My research team is working on a few projects this semester:

  • Deploying an Amazon Alexa skill to older adults and their caregivers to help with difficult care conversations (with Dr. Jazette Johnson and Rachael Zuppke)
  • Analyzing data from prototype testing where we evaluated audio nudges with older adults (with Hira Jamshed and Novia Nurain)
  • Analyzing data from focus groups with blind and low vision people and how they want information about errors communicated better with visual Q&A apps (with Rahaf Alharbi)
  • Interviews with older adults and their care partners on how algorithms affect care routines (with John Rudnik)
  • Investigating restorative measures older adults take with frauds and scams (with Sam Ankenbauer)

And, none of these projects were possible without our amazing project manager, Lisa Coyle.


Keep up with Robin Brewer's research by visiting her UMSI faculty profile


— Noor Hindi, UMSI public relations specialist