New York State will distribute robotic companions to the homes of more than 800 older adults. The robots are not able to help with physical tasks, but work as more active versions of digital assistants like Siri or Alexa – engaging users in chatting, helping to contact loving people, and keeping track of healthy goals like exercise and medication.
The scheme is organized by the New York State Office of Aging (NYSOFA), and aims to help address the growing problem of social isolation among the elderly. About 14 million Americans over the age of 65 currently lives alone, and this figure is projected to increase over the next decade as the boom generation ages. Studies have suggested that long-term loneliness is as harmful to an individual’s health as smoking.
NYSOFA Director Greg Olsen says the robots – called ElliQ and built by Israeli firm Intuition Robotics – could help address this growing health problem by encouraging independence among older adults living alone and providing companionship.
“A lot of traits have attracted us to ElliQ – that it’s an enterprising tool, remembers the interactions with the individual, focuses on health and well-being, stress reduction, sleep, hydration, etc.,” Olsen said. The Edge. “It focuses on what is important for individuals: memories, validation, interactions with friends and family, and promotes overall good health and well-being.”
ElliQ consists of two parts attached to a single base. The first part is a lamp-like “face” with a microphone and speakers that lights up and turns to face the people it’s talking to. The second is a touch screen tablet, used to display pictures, additional information and make video calls. The unit was deliberately designed to appear more robotic than humanoid, to better focus attention on its conversational skills.
Intuition Robotics ’claim is that ElliQ can project empathy and form connections with users. The robot is supposed to remember key details about a user’s life, and shape their character to their own. It will burst more jokes if the user tends to laugh a lot, for example. Media reports suggests that the robot may certainly be liked by humans (ElliQ has been evolving for many years with Intuition Robotics doing dozens of home tests to improve its functionality) but the real test will be widespread deployment.
Olsen says NYSOFA case managers will identify individuals who could benefit from ElliQ based on a number of criteria. “ElliQ is designed for people aged 75 and older who have access to Wi-Fi, and are comfortable with technical equipment and who are isolated or lonely,” he says. The Edge. “Once individuals are identified as in the target group, Intuition Robotics will work to provide installation and training.”
NYSOFA bought about 800 ElliQ units from Intuition Robotics for an unknown price. The usual cost of hiring the robot is a $ 250 down payment and then a $ 30 monthly service fee. NYSOFA says that by buying the robots directly, it will be able to move them more easily.
Deploying robots for elderly care is often controversial. Activists say robots are a necessary tool, especially when humans are not available. Critics warn that machines have the potential to dehumanize their users, and their deployment reflects the low-value society puts on older adults. Scientific studies to suggest social robots do “seem to have the potential to improve the well-being of older adults,” but researchers say it’s difficult to draw conclusions without broader evidence. In New York State, a new experiment is just beginning.