New York to hand out ‘robot companions’ to elderly
New York state is distributing robot caretakers to some 800 elderly adults in an effort to combat a burgeoning epidemic of loneliness, the New York State Office for the Aging announced in a press release on Wednesday.
Manufactured by Israeli company Intuition Robotics, the ElliQ bots being distributed to New Yorkers’ households are said to “foster independence and provide support for older adults through daily check-ins, assistance with wellness goals and physical activities, connection to family and friends, and more.” The program is supposedly aimed at combating loneliness, which a growing body of scientific studies has shown has detrimental health effects as bad or worse than smoking and obesity.
Noting the loneliness epidemic has only gotten worse with social distancing and other devastating government responses to Covid-19, the press release hails ElliQ as more human-like than other “smart technologies,” describing how the robot “proactively suggests activities and initiates conversations” rather than simply responding to commands. The device uses AI to synthesize conversational prompts from facts gleaned from user input.
About the size of a table lamp, with a tablet screen for displaying text and a round white moving “head” featuring a glowing circle that oscillates while “speaking,” the ElliQ tracks basic health metrics like pulse and blood pressure, offers text, calling and email functions, and tells what might pass for jokes in a human-contact-starved mind (“What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot”) in addition to remembering basic facts it later uses to initiate “conversations” with the user. During beta-testing, the robot initiated 60% of interactions.
Intuition Robotics CEO Dor Skuler has big plans for ElliQ, which he appears to see as a valid replacement for human companionship among the elderly, offering the elusive element of empathy missing from Alexa, Siri and other digital voice assistants. “This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you,” he told the Washington Post when the robot was commercially released in March. “People who use ElliQ expect her to remember conversations, they expect her to hold context … to deal with the hard times and celebrate the great times. These are the things I think we’re on the frontier of.”
The 33 patents the company has developed – as well as the screenwriters who reportedly devised the ElliQ’s ‘character’ – have apparently paid off, if the early users interviewed by the Post are any indication. One woman described her “little family group” in a phone call to her (human) daughter as consisting of “my little dog, my ElliQ and me.”
Except this little family group also suggests products and services with which Intuition Robotics has paid partnerships.
While ElliQ supposedly does not sell users’ data to third parties, it’s not clear to what extent the company’s ‘partners’ receive information from the device referring the user to their services. It shares health information with relatives and doctors according to “permissions given,” though it’s not clear where normal conversation ends and where “health information” begins. For example, if the user says she’s feeling depressed, it remains to be seen whether her doctor will be notified, or ElliQ will merely try to cheer her up with a ‘joke’.
Intuition Robotics is getting in on the ground floor of what will likely prove to be a lucrative industry, with $2.9 million in New York’s 2023 state budget aimed at combating social isolation. The ElliQ program will split that funding with NYSOFA’s “animatronic pet initiative,” which allegedly reduces self-reported loneliness by 70% with robotic animals, a family caregiver support program, elder-focused ride-share services, and online communities. The agency’s primary focus is keeping the elderly in their own homes for as long as possible – an especially serious health issue in New York, which saw some of the highest levels of care-home deaths due to Covid-19 in the US thanks to policies that mandated housing coronavirus-infected patients with the bed-bound elderly.