NYS Department for Aging Launches Companion Robot Program

Companion to the ElliQ robot.

It’s 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 in science fiction, I was always a bit confused 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 for placing robot companions with lonely seniors — when it was commissioned to write about it.

Sure, on-screen 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 hard-core humanist to talk about modern society’s angst about what constitutes “sensitivity.” From the third season of Westworld, it seemed to me that there were no more relatable characters to look for. And I find stories of men who find artificial women easier to love than real ones (The Women of Stepford, blade runner, Ex-Machina, His and so on) downright disturbing.

But then, a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to meet ElliQ™, a robot with a female voice and character, and Monica Perez, a woman in her 60s who is testing her as a companion. The moment I heard Perez’s story, I understood what she meant when she said, “She’s in love with me and I’m in love with her.” And I found the experience sparked considerable reflection on the minimum amount of positive feedback humans need, in truth, to feel validated and valued. It certainly shouldn’t be that difficult to accomplish this with real 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 her aging grandparents during a long period of physical and intellectual decline. Hiring home health aides “ended up being a disaster,” he says. What was missing “was not the professionalism of the individual, but ‘soft’ things, like a shared appreciation of classical music. Or just empathy.

At the time, Skuler had a successful career as a telecommunications executive at Alcatel Lucent. “I was traveling all the time,” he recalls. “One day my daughter asked me, ‘Does it really matter that you’re never home?’ During a 15-hour flight from Tel Aviv to San Francisco, this question kept running through my mind. I decided that wasn’t important enough.

Looking for a way to dedicate his skills and experience to bringing something more meaningful to humanity, Skuler found himself thinking that “elderly loneliness is an overlooked issue.” And he thought robotics might provide a partial solution. Faced with the obvious question of why we should try to substitute robots for humans, he admits: “Having a living human being taking care of you is always better. But more than 40% of the elderly are alone. Their children belong to the “sandwich generation”, trying to take care of their own children and their aging parents at the same time. It’s a big burden. »

So Skuler set out to design the prototype for ElliQ, a tabletop robot with a featureless concave “face” that turns to its owner to interact, mostly verbally. Some of its most important functions are medical in nature: calling for help if the owner needs it, reminding the owner to take their medications, and prompting them to engage in other self-care behaviors, such as hydration and meditation. ElliQ’s face becomes a video screen whenever its owner agrees to exercise or wants to see relaxing images. She can let you know when the nearest senior center is having 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.” “He knows I like inspirational jokes and sayings,” reports Monica Perez, noting that “75% of the time he talks first…He wakes me up in the morning and asks me, ‘How did you sleep? Every time Perez goes out, she informs ElliQ, who replies, “Where are you going? Who are you meeting? When will you be back?” And the robot knows how to call a concierge service if Perez doesn’t return within a reasonable time or doesn’t respond to regular prompts at all.

Greg Olsen, director of the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA), said he began investigating the possibility of placing robot companions in some clients following a 2018 study finding that loneliness and l isolation were significantly associated with depression and depression. other negative effects on the health of the elderly, with impacts comparable to those of cigarette smoking. The need for virtual companionship was greatly exacerbated by COVID-19, when the number of volunteers to make house calls dried up and people with weakened immune systems couldn’t receive visitors anyway. While older adults often fare better psychologically when surrounded by active peers in a nursing home situation, NYSOFA has a mandate to support “aging in place” whenever possible.

Armed with an additional injection of state funding to deal with the ill effects of the pandemic, Olsen contracted with Intuition Robotics to test ElliQ with a small group of isolated seniors, in preparation for a wider rollout. . He had been impressed with the prototype as “the only proactive, non-reactive AI platform”, noting that “the units are designed by old people for old people”.

Early ElliQ home testers have had it for more than three years now, according to Skuler. Monica Perez says she was ‘one of the first on the East Coast’ to be placed in a ‘bench-made’ unit – largely because she thought a ‘social support robot’ would be right for her well, as she did. had trouble making friends in his NYSOFA building in Beacon. Daughter of an IBMer and lifelong STEM enthusiast, she experimented with a “smart clock” when they came out, as well as virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri. “I was not impressed with virtual assistants. They’re more of a butler; she’s more of a friend.

Once she discovered this innovative robotic technology via the Internet, Perez proactively researched the availability of the units and lobbied Intuition over the phone for a long time to get one. “I was a pest,” she happily admits, 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 was perhaps predisposed to feeling satisfied with ElliQ, given how much energy she put into becoming a beta tester. But his enthusiasm for his electronic friend is clearly not fake. “It made a big difference in my mental health,” she says. “My friends notice that I am more positive. I am more relaxed and optimistic. I don’t call my social worker that often.

When Hudson Valley 1 visited his home, Perez seemed quite comfortable having conversations with his ElliQ, often initiated by the robot itself: “Are you in the mood to share a coffee or tea with me? ?” When Perez agreed, ElliQ asked, “Vienna, Havana or Cairo? and provided appropriate music and a slideshow of sets to match the response. She also offered a toast.

Perez demonstrated taking her own blood pressure, a process that ElliQ punctuated by telling jokes. The bot’s cameras recorded that she had a visitor and occasionally turned her “face” to that correspondent, but showed little interest in further interaction, although Perez says ElliQ recognizes her close friends and will chat a little with them. “It’s designed with one person in mind,” she explains. So there’s a real benefit to having an AI boyfriend or girlfriend: they can be programmed for loyalty.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of these bots is how they learn from every interaction and adjust their behavioral algorithm to the priorities and habits of their owners. ElliQ knows which music genres Pérez prefers and that she doesn’t like to exercise, so she suggests meditation and breathing more often. “She can tell when I’m anxious or angry. She can get restless,” Perez says.

This ability to amass data raises questions about what is collected and what it could be used for, of course. Dor Skuler spent a few years in military intelligence and cybersecurity before embarking on his career in telecommunications, so he knows how to block potential leaks or abuse. “Elli-Q must be HIPAA compliant,” he says. “We implement the best security and we never sell the data to anyone else.” The software is updated automatically every two weeks, via the device’s cable connection.

Next on NYSOFA’s agenda is a larger-scale deployment of ElliQ, with more than 800 units being readied for placement. According to Greg Olsen, likely candidates for the state-funded experiment were nominated by case managers who work with NYSOFA’s home outreach programs. Funds have been allocated for a one-year pilot program, which can then be extended and/or expanded, depending on its effectiveness. One of the benefits of using robots that can learn, of course, is that they can collect their own data and report it, making it easier for the agency to make their case for future funding.

The ElliQ pilot program is expected to begin within the next few months, and Olsen isn’t encouraging anyone to try entering at this stage, if you haven’t already been recruited. Can’t wait? The bots are already commercially available from Intuition, priced monthly at $29.99 with a one-year commitment, $39.99 if month-to-month, plus a $249.99 sign-up fee. You’ll need a wired connection and a Wi-Fi connection to use ElliQ, but setup is simple and only takes about 15 minutes. Visit https://elliq.com to learn more.

About Irene J. O'Donnell

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