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  • 01.12.17

Can Robots Really Be Companions To Elderly People?

Yves Béhar designs a personal assistant for seniors that addresses some of the biggest challenges of bringing technology into our homes.

Even the most outgoing seniors can live a very isolated life at home. The couch can seem more inviting than a walk. The TV more tempting than learning a new hobby. And over the years, this isolation can snowball into stagnation, taking a physical and emotional toll that impacts personal mobility, cognition, and happiness. The world has more seniors than it has ever known. Maximizing their quality of life is one of the great public health challenges of our time.

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Which is precisely the climate that has brought us ElliQ. Created by the Israeli startup Intuition Robotics and designed by Yves Béhar’s Fuseproject (with design luminary Don Norman serving as a consultant), ElliQ is an animatronic that lives on a side table, turning its neck and referencing content on a nearby tablet, to act as an enthusiastic interpreter between seniors living at home and the internet.

“There’s a lot happening in personal robotics, ever since Pepper and Jibo [two robots that each have faces, and are programmed specifically to communicate and interact with humans]. Most if not all of these projects are generic, tech-driven products for anyone to use,” says Dor Skuler, the CEO of Intuition Robotics. “[Our] premise is dealing with not just adult age, but the loneliness and isolation of the elderly population.”

Elder quality of life is an unthinkably large design problem for any one product or company to tackle, but ElliQ essentially breaks the experience into two parts: The company uses AI, Google voice recognition, and Google machine learning to connect seniors both to the internet and to family and friends. ElliQ can be set by a son, daughter, or caregiver with tasks like medication reminders (and if the older adult opts in, a child might be able to see health information like whether or not the parent woke up in the morning, or if he or she were active). Its ears can hear a request like “ElliQ, call my grandson” to load sometimes esoteric tech experiences like a video chat. And it has more passive functions, like a video camera that can monitor seniors’ activity, see them in a chair, recognize if the TV has been on for six hours, then speak up to suggest they go for a walk, listen to an audiobook, or watch a TED Talk.

But consider that challenge: Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri waits passively to answer a question or command. ElliQ has to nudge its audience to better behaviors, carefully, as anyone who has cared for a dignified senior knows well. “[The user] needs positive affinity with ElliQ, or you’ll throw us out,” says Skuler. “How do we suggest you go for a walk? Do we show an animation on the screen, or do we say, ‘Hey you lazy bum! You’ve been on the couch for six hours!’ For each of these choices, her tone of voice, movements, LEDs, things we show on the screen, will all be different–to us that’s magical because it allows you to relate with what we’re trying to say.”

Which is exactly what necessitates the other half of ElliQ–not the AI and machine learning end with a tablet and spoken UI, but the physical, animatronic assistant itself, a diminutive, slack-shouldered buddy, a cross between a Dreamworks Minion and the Luxo Jr., the Pixar lamp. Because it sits in one place, it can never trip on a rug, get lost behind a couch, or run out of battery.

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As Béhar tells the story, ElliQ didn’t begin as a robot. It was something more like an AI sensor platform that the team considered building right into a tablet.

“What we discovered is when you try to bring these functions together in a seamless form factor, you’re essentially creating new problems that kind of diminish the core use. So some information comes via screen and displays and is text based. That information makes sense to be on a tablet, on a device you can remove, take to the couch, move around the house with. But a lot of functionality is greatly enhanced by voice, for example, and sound and speakers,” says Béhar. “If we had a bigger form factor to work with–and could have better sound, and better mics–then came the persona, the sidekick to the tablet. And this is where we can add an emotional, empathic type of behavior.”

And that empathy layer is really the most fascinating, far-off bit of what ElliQ is attempting that most AI does not. Talking to ElliQ isn’t intended to simply be an easy way to call family without hitting tiny buttons on a tablet or finding the right app; it’s intended to be a friend who can appreciate and experience these life events with you. In this regard, it is something like Paro, the $6,000 stuffed robotic seal that has brought comfort to elderly people with dementia but articulated at every level through a design aimed at a more active, alert senior.

“The challenge is to find the right amount of, I’d say, cuteness that isn’t insulting or babying. Something where you’re batting the eyelashes and being so cute that it becomes . . . you’re not having a serious interaction with the object,” says Béhar. “Empathy is shown scientifically as having great resolve, creating great outcomes, so we know we needed that type of interaction. But the form, in the team’s opinion, needed to become maybe more subtle, more adult, less predictable, less cliché.”

ElliQ is still in development. Ten prototypes will go into field testing with seniors this month, but the company isn’t promising anything regarding pricing or ship dates. Will it succeed? On one hand, there’s a massive market–almost a third of the aging population, and half of women over age 75, live alone. On the other, ElliQ is essentially a whole new product category unto itself, with an assertive quirk that, even if it’s functional, might not leap the larger hurdle; it might not be likable.

“We truly believe in the older adult segment. As opposed to building a gadget, there’s a real problem we can solve,” says Skuler. “That excites us, but it’s obviously riskier. You don’t imagine the first people using personal robots as older adults.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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