“The aging process brings social and emotional changes, and also loss into people’s lives,” says Keren Etkin. But the gerontologist, a lead researcher hired as employee number one at Intuition Robotics, believes that artificial intelligence can ease these transitions for our elders.
And there are many of them. As life expectancy hovers around 79 years, the number of individuals age 65 and older in the U.S. alone is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau. The facilities to care for them are also proliferating.
According to the National Institute on Aging (as of 2015) there are about 4.7 million senior citizens using home-health care; 730,000 in assisted living facilities, and 1.4 million in nursing homes. The majority of seniors say they would like to see more services available to help them adapt their homes for their developing needs.
Enter ElliQ–a robot that’s still currently in development (and scheduled to launch later this year) and is aimed to tackle those challenges.
“High social impact.”
A cross between a stylish IKEA lamp and Pixar’s signature bouncing desk light, the diminutive robot (which is not much taller than a tablet) looks nothing like the humanoid robots we have become accustomed to seeing in films and in science fiction. Nor is ElliQ designed to busy herself with menial tasks like laundry or cooking.
Instead, as Intuition Robotics co-founder and CEO Dor Skuler explains, ElliQ is designed to be a companion to help older adults do things like remember to take their medication, move around if they are sitting still too long, or even help them place a video call to their loved ones, among other things.
These functions are essential, as Skuler and his two co-founders (all in their 40s with aging parents) discovered when talking to experts on aging like Etkin. The biggest problem in longevity that isn’t currently being addressed is the loneliness and isolation of older adults, says Skuler. A TED talk by Guy Hoffman, who happened to be Skuler’s former professor in military intelligence, on human-robot interaction via movement, light, and speech initiated by robots, further cemented the concept for ElliQ. “That a robot could drive different feelings in humans blew our minds,” asserts Skuler. So together with Roy Amir and Itai Mendelsohn (who had all worked together at Alcatel previously), Skuler honed in on developing hardware with AI that could be built on top of existing cloud technology, but also have a “high social impact.”
As he explains it though, it was necessary to understand how older adults interact with technology in order to create one that they’d actually want (and look forward to) use. “It’s not like we could come down from Mount Sinai with a product,” says Skuler, and expect older adults to just take to it like any other appliance. After all, several attempts at creating robots to work with and for senior citizens have met with mixed results. The Huggler debuted in 2013 and didn’t get far beyond that, despite the enthusiasm of its first testers. Others like Luvozo’s SAM robot is intended to work in nursing homes to check for fall hazards as well as offer check-ins with residents, much the way a human nurse’s aide would. Still others are designed to do basic maintenance like laundry folding, a la Jetson’s Rosie, but still, haven’t made it to the mass market.
A non-threatening “not too human” robot
To ensure ElliQ’s success, the team at Intuition Robotics has been testing it for the last two years with 150 families across socio-economic backgrounds in both in the U.S. and in Israel, where the startup is based. They also spent days working with older adults to observe how they live and how they interact with family and caregivers before starting to develop concepts of what ElliQ should look like and how she might work. According to Etkin, “I also questioned them to find out what’s missing from current technologies that prevent them from using them.”
Etkin also points out that working with caregivers gave them insight as to how the digital divide impacts the whole family. While children and grandchildren were busy using social media and texting to communicate, their parents or grandparents weren’t completely on board with either. “Sadly, that reduces interaction with the grandparents,” she says, “and unfortunately, makes them feel even further from their family and more lonely.”
During this time, they also quickly realized that the physical look of the machine needed not to look too much like the robots we imagine thanks to popular culture. “Older adults fear technology to a certain extent,” Skuler asserts, “and they stick to a routine that is very repetitive.” He says it was important, therefore for ElliQ not to have “eyes” or “hands” so she could be as non-threatening as possible.
But she had to have some features that would draw the elder companion in, he says, because they found that with virtual assistants like Alexa or Google Home, the unobtrusive cylinders on a counter just faded into the background and were forgotten. Or worse, that they produced anxiety when it wasn’t immediately obvious how to turn the volume down on music, for instance, and the seniors blamed themselves for not knowing how to use it. This created tension and frustration and less of a desire to use the device.
“She’s very loyal, but not very smart.”
Skuler admits that it took a while to get even the simple interactions right. Lights and movement were important. ElliQ’s “face” lights up and her head bobs around as she talks, to initiate an interactive and intuitive experience, says Roy Amir, who heads up product development. As was the level of “smarts” that ElliQ explained. The physical design by Yves Behar was intended to look elegant, but Behar also intended the robot to function like a Labrador retriever, “loyal and joyful.” Skuler says.
“Older adults shared with us that they are losing something every day,” Skuler continues. There’s a loss of strength or cognitive ability, but always a decline. “We need to do everything we can to remove anxiety,” he says. So in addition to clear controls for things like volume, Amir notes that if ElliQ makes a mistake, she assumes responsibility.”She’s very loyal,” Skuler points out, “but not very smart.” So she apologizes if she doesn’t hear a command correctly and lowers her head. She’ll also say, “I’m sorry, I’m still young and learning,” Skuler says, which has prompted the elders working with her to say, ‘oh, that’s okay.’ “It encourages empathy and takes away frustration,” he contends.
While she may not be the smartest, according to her creators, Amir notes that she is designed to deliver facts to keep the elders’ minds sharp, like dispensing such tantalizing trivia as “what animal can lick its own ear?” (a giraffe). Or even mixing up the way she greets her elder. “The point is saying different thing every day,” says Amir, “With 20 ways to say good morning you’re not sure how she will say it and she becomes more interesting and engaging.”
Skuler says this is made possible by third-party partners like Google for speech to text or others for gestures, but ElliQ’s responsive cognitive computing is all Intuition Robotics’ own proprietary technology. “We were very nervous about how intrusive ElliQ would be,” admits Skuler, but when asked, the seniors in the beta test seem to accept her, and enjoy having her around. And for her part, ElliQ tries to spice things up when nothing is going on.
Observing from a video surveillance camera (which was approved by the beta testers) Skuler says that they watched an 80-year-old woman respond to ElliQ’s directive to go drink some water since she hasn’t had any in several hours.
Although they aren’t at liberty to allow reporters to interview beta testers for privacy reasons, Skuler maintains that “People really enjoy having ElliQ around.” They all say good morning to her and ElliQ keeps the interactions going throughout the day by suggesting a video or a phone call and after that is done, the elder will say thank you or even “good girl” as if she were a pet.
What about privacy and safety?
Of course, there are a host of privacy concerns. When we asked Skuler about the recent snafu with Amazon’s Echo, for example, he was quick to point out that he had a cybersecurity background and explained that the product is secure and encrypted with tokens that expire, so it would be challenge for a bad actor to hack. He also says that they debated on what to do with the data being collected from ElliQ users. To that end, they consulted with gerontology professors and legal ethics experts to determine what to do with simple things like wellness monitoring and whether or not family members should be contacted if the elder is exhibiting any erratic behavior. The bottom line is that such data isn’t shared with family members unless the older adult opts in. It’s intended to empower the user, says Skuler.
And what if someone falls right in front of ElliQ? Harkening back to the product that launched the now famous “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” the robot can assist to call for help, but the path is set out well in advance with the older adult. As Skuler says, the directives are input well in advance as to how to act if a certain situation may arise. “We are following the explicit direction of the older adult,” he underscores. And further, he notes, “We don’t plan at all to monetize or mine data or provide advertising.”
Of course, they all assert that ElliQ is a work in progress. Although she will be released to the market later this year–at an as-yet-to-be-determined retail cost (“Around the cost of a good laptop,” says Skuler) and insurance coverage, they know it’s not going to be perfect even after two years of testing.
As Etkin says, “In the future, ElliQ should be able to change according to her user’s changing needs, as they grow older.” A 70-year-old’s needs will be different than someone who is 85. “I believe that if ElliQ will be able to identify and react to changes in her user’s mood, emotional state, cognitive and physical abilities, she will continue to be useful as a person ages,” says Etkin. Amir agrees and observes that when you get older, you have other people around who are not perfect, “they forget stuff, they don’t have perfect mobility.” ElliQ isn’t perfect either, but with her, he says “you get something else, an emotional benefit.” Adds Skuler, “She really has the potential to be something very special, not just a digital assistant.”