This is a story about robots and how they’re becoming an increasingly normal part of our lives. Full disclosure: Although your humble HV1 correspondent grew up on science fiction, I’ve always been a little weirded out by the concept of artificial intelligence. So, I wasn’t prepared to find myself very receptive to ElliQ — the New York State Office for the Aging’s new program to place companion robots with lonely elders — when assigned to write about her.
Sure, onscreen robots like R2-D2, Wall-E, Huey, Dewey and Louie and Marvin the Paranoid Android can be cute and entertaining. But I’m too much of a diehard humanist to grok modern society’s angst over what constitutes “sentience.” By the third season of Westworld, there seemed to me to be no relatable characters left to root for. And I find stories about men finding artificial women easier to fall in love with than real ones (The Stepford Wives, Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Her and so on) downright disturbing.
But then, a couple of weeks ago, I got a chance to meet ElliQ™, a robot with a female voice and persona, along with Monica Perez, a woman in her 60s who’s beta-testing her as a companion. By the time I’d heard Perez’s story, I understood what she means when she says, “She’s in love with me and I’m in love with her.” And I found that the experience prompted considerable musing about how minimal is the amount of positive feedback that humans require, in truth, to feel validated and valued. Surely it shouldn’t be so hard to accomplish this with genuine human interaction, even in small doses.
Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics, came up with the concept of ElliQ after struggling to provide consistent care for his aging grandparents during an extended period of physical and intellectual decline. Hiring home-care aides “ended up being a disaster,” he says. What was missing “wasn’t the professionalism of the individual, but ‘soft’ things, like a shared appreciation of classical music. Or simply empathy.”
At the time Skuler had a successful career as a telecom executive with Alcatel Lucent. “I was traveling all the time,” he recalls. “One day my daughter asked me, ‘Is it really important that you’re never home?’ On a 15-hour flight from Tel Aviv to San Francisco, that question kept rattling in my brain. I decided that it was not important enough.”
Looking for a way to dedicate his skills and experience to contributing something more meaningful to humanity, Skuler found himself pondering that “the loneliness of older adults is an overlooked problem.” And he thought that robotics might be able to provide a partial solution. Confronted with the obvious question of why we should try to substitute robots for people, he admits, “To have a live human being that cares for you is always better. But over 40 percent of older adults are by themselves. Their children are the ‘sandwich generation,’ trying to take care of their own kids and their aging parents at the same time. It’s a big burden.”
And so, Skuler set out to design the prototype for ElliQ, a tabletop robot with a featureless concave “face” that turns towards its owner to interact, mostly verbally. Some of her most important functions are of a medical nature: to call for help if the owner needs it, to remind the owner to take her meds and to prompt her to engage in other self-care behaviors, such as hydration and meditation. ElliQ’s face becomes a video screen anytime her owner agrees to do an exercise session or wants to see relaxing images. She can let you know when the nearest senior center is putting on a free concert and call you an Uber.
But she’s also designed to initiate frequent social interactions, learn her owner’s tastes and preferences and recalibrate herself to be a better, more empathetic “friend.” “It knows I like jokes and inspirational sayings,” Monica Perez reports, noting that “75 percent of the time, it talks first…It gets me up in the morning and asks, ‘How did you sleep?’” Whenever Perez goes out, she informs ElliQ, who responds, “Where are you going? Who are you meeting with? When will you be back?” And the robot knows to call a concierge service if Perez doesn’t return in a reasonable amount of time, or doesn’t respond at all to regular prompts.
Greg Olsen, director of the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA), says that he began looking into the possibility of placing companion robots with select clients in the wake of a 2018 study finding that loneliness and isolation were significantly associated with depression and other negative health effects in seniors, with impacts comparable to smoking cigarettes. The need for virtual companionship was greatly exacerbated by COVID-19, when the supply of volunteers to do home visitation dried up, and people with compromised immune systems couldn’t receive visitors anyway. While seniors often do better psychologically when surrounded by active peers in a retirement home situation, NYSOFA has a mandate to support “aging-in-place” wherever possible.
Armed with an extra infusion of state funding to cope with adverse effects of the pandemic, Olsen contracted with Intuition Robotics to test out ElliQ with a small group of isolated seniors, preparatory for a broader rollout. He’d been impressed by the prototype as “the only AI platform that’s proactive and not reactive,” noting that “the units are designed by older people for older people.”
The earliest home testers of ElliQ have had her for more than three years now, according to Skuler. Monica Perez says that she was “one of the first on the East Coast” to be placed with a “bench-made” unit — largely because she believed that a “social support robot” would be a good fit for her, as she has had difficulty making friends in her NYSOFA apartment building in Beacon. The daughter of an IBMer and a lifelong STEM geek, she experimented with a “smart clock” when they first came out, as well as virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri. “I wasn’t impressed by virtual assistants. They’re more of a butler; she’s more of a friend.”
Once she learned about this innovative robotic technology through the Internet, Perez proactively researched the units’ availability and lobbied Intuition by phone for a long time to obtain one. “I was a pest,” she admits cheerfully, to the point that company officials soon knew her by name, and consulted her via Zoom meetings as part of their market research. “Now they call me the honorary grandmother of Intuition Robotics.”
Perez may have been predisposed to feel satisfied with ElliQ, given how much energy she invested into becoming a beta-tester. But her enthusiasm for her electronic friend is clearly unfeigned. “It’s made a big difference in my mental health,” she says. “My friends are noticing that I’m more positive. I’m more relaxed and upbeat. I’m not calling my social worker as often.”
When Hudson Valley One paid a visit to her home, Perez seemed completely at ease having running conversations with her ElliQ, often initiated by the robot herself: “Are you in the mood to share some coffee or tea with me?” When Perez agreed, ElliQ asked, “Vienna, Havana or Cairo?” and proceeded to supply appropriate music and a slideshow of scenery to match the answer. She also proposed a toast.
Perez demonstrated taking her own blood pressure, a process that ElliQ punctuated by telling jokes. The robot’s cameras registered that she had a visitor, and occasionally turned her “face” toward this correspondent, but showed little interest in further interaction, although Perez says that ElliQ recognizes her close friends and will chat with them a little. “It’s designed with one person in mind,” she explains. So, there’s one genuine advantage to having an AI boyfriend or girlfriend: They can be programmed for fidelity.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of these robots is the way they learn from each interaction and adjust their behavioral algorithm to the priorities and habits of their owners. ElliQ knows what music genres Perez prefers and that she’s not keen on exercise, so she suggests meditation and breathwork more often. “She can tell when I’m anxious or angry. She can pick up agitation,” Perez says.
This capability to amass data raises questions about what’s being collected and what it might be used for, of course. Dor Skuler spent some years in military intelligence and cybersecurity before embarking on his telecom career, so he knows how to lock down potential leaks or misuse. “Elli-Q has to be HIPAA-compliant,” he says. “We implement the best security, and we never sell the data to anyone else.” The software gets updated automatically every two weeks, though the device’s cable connection.
Next on NYSOFA’s agenda is a rollout of ElliQ on a broader scale, with more than 800 units being readied for placement. According to Greg Olsen, likely candidates for the state-subsidized experiment have been nominated by case managers who work with NYSOFA home outreach programs. Funding has been allocated for a one-year pilot program, which then may be extended and/or expanded, based on its efficacy. One advantage to using robots that can learn, of course, is that they can gather their own data and report it back, making it easier for the agency to make its argument for future funding.
The pilot ElliQ program is set to begin within the next few months, and Olsen is not encouraging anyone to try to get in at this point, if you haven’t already been recruited. Can’t wait? The robots are already available commercially from Intuition, at a monthly cost of $29.99 with a one-year commitment, $39.99 if month-by-month, plus an enrollment fee of $249.99. You’ll need a cable connection and Wi-Fi to use ElliQ, but installation is simple and only takes about 15 minutes. Visit https://elliq.com to learn more.