With $2.9 million in the state budget for 2023 geared at eliminating social isolation, Intuition Robotics is jumping in on the ground level of what is sure to be a profitable market. Now New York is set to distribute empathetic robot caretakers to combat loneliness in elderly.
The New York State Office for the Aging stated in a news release on Wednesday that it is sending robotic caregivers to 800 senior individuals in an attempt to tackle a growing loneliness plague.
The ElliQ bots, which are being dispersed to New Yorkers’ homes by Israeli firm Intuition Robotics, are designed 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 ostensibly designed to tackle loneliness, which, according to a rising body of scientific evidence, has health consequences comparable to or worse than smoking and obesity.
The press statement touts ElliQ as more human-like than some other “smart technologies,” characterizing how the robot “proactively suggests activities and initiates conversations” instead of merely reacting to orders, noting that the loneliness epidemic has only grown worse with social distancing and other detrimental government reactions to Covid-19.
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The device employs artificial intelligence to provide conversational prompts based on information provided by the user.
The ElliQ, which is about the dimensions of a table lamp and has a tablet monitor for presenting text and a round white moving “head” with a shining circle that oscillates while “speaking,” records basic health statistics like pulse and blood pressure, provides text, calling, and email features, and tries to tell what might pass for jokes in a human-contact-starved mind (“What is orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot”), it remembers fundamental facts and then uses them to start “conversations” with the user. During beta testing, the robot was responsible for 60% of interactions.
ElliQ, according to Intuition Robotics CEO Dor Skuler, is a viable substitute for human company among the aged, providing the elusive aspect of empathy absent from Alexa, Siri, and other digital voice assistants. When the robot was publicly released in March, he told the Washington Post, “This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you.”
“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.”
If the early adopters contacted by the Post are any indication, the company’s 33 patents – as well as the screenwriters who supposedly designed the ElliQ’s ‘character’ – have paid off. In a phone chat to her (human) daughter, one woman defined her “little family group” as “my little dog, my ElliQ and me.”
Except that this small family group also recommends products and services with whom Intuition Robotics has paid agreements.
Although ElliQ claims not to trade its users’ data to other parties, it is unclear how much information the company’s ‘partners’ acquire from the device recommending the user to their services.
According to “permissions given,” it communicates health information with families and doctors, while it is unclear where normal discussion stops and “health information” starts. If a user reports she is depressed, for instance, it is unclear whether her doctor will be alerted or if ElliQ will simply try to make her feel better with a ‘joke.’
With $2.9 million in the state budget for 2023 geared at eliminating social isolation, Intuition Robotics is jumping in on the ground level of what is sure to be a profitable market. The ElliQ project will share the money with NYSOFA’s “animatronic pet initiative,” which uses robotic animals, a family caregiver support program, elder-focused ride-sharing services, and online communities to reportedly decrease self-reported loneliness by 70%.
The agency’s main goal is to keep the elderly in their own homes for as long as possible. This is a particularly serious health issue in New York, which has seen some of the highest rates of Covid-19-related deaths in the country, thanks to initiatives that required coronavirus-infected patients to be housed with the bed-bound aged.