Seniors and technology: If you've thought about these two things in conjunction, there's a good chance it was because a grandparent asked you for help getting on "the Facebook." Or where to view those presidential tweets they're always talking about on the news. And what's a tweet, anyway?
But there's a not-so-funny truth behind this comic trope. Half of adults over 65 who live independently report feeling excessively lonely, and more than a third say they see only one other person in a typical week. In many cases, tech is making their isolation worse: The more our interpersonal interactions happen on smartphones and messaging services, the more those who don't speak digital get left out.
The idea behind ElliQ, a "social robot" from Intuition Robotics, which is based in Jerusalem, is to flip this dynamic on its head. Responding to voice commands, ElliQ reads its users their emails and text messages, displays new photos and videos sent by family members, and reminds them of things like doctors' appointments and when to take medications. It will also spontaneously suggest activities like going for a walk or playing a trivia game to break up long periods of inactivity.
ElliQ doesn't look like a robot at all. Mounted on a console next to a tablet computer, which is included, it more closely resembles a deconstructed smart speaker, like Amazon's Echo. The two segments of its "body" tilt and swivel, but that's as much as it moves. Yves Béhar, who designed it, says the company decided early on against making a robot that would "follow someone around being creepy." Instead, says Béhar, the design mind behind products like the Jawbone fitness tracker and the SodaStream seltzer-maker, the goal was to make something that fit into the decor. "We wanted it to look like a friendly home object," he says.
With no facial features, ElliQ inflects its speech through a pared-down gestural vocabulary that evokes human body language without reproducing it to give "a sense of emotion," says Béhar. His inspiration: the anthropomorphic desk lamp that announces the beginning of Pixar's films."Instead of our learning to talk to technology, technology should learn to talk to us."
Despite its deliberately simplified exterior, ElliQ's innards are packed with artificial intelligence algorithms whose purpose is to help it anticipate an owner's needs and understand his or her wishes. For instance, ElliQ adjusts its speech patterns over time according to which verbal styles elicit the best responses--becoming more assertive or more ingratiating. "Instead of our learning to talk to technology, technology should learn to talk to us," says Dor Skuler, the founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics, which has raised $22 million in venture capital.
After launching and selling a string of telecommunications and cloud-computing startups, Skuler--a veteran of Unit 8200, Israel's elite signals-intelligence force and de facto startup organization--wanted his next venture to be something with positive social impact. When he looked at tech for seniors, he saw a lot of products aimed at ameliorating the effects of disability or disease but few for healthy people wanting to live fuller lives. ElliQ users can opt into features like medication compliance and wellness monitoring, but those are secondary. The robot's primary selling point is that it allows older adults living on their own to feel connected to the greater world.
Intuition hopes to start selling ElliQ this year, with units priced "at the high end of consumer electronics," Skuler says. To fine-tune the product for launch, the company is conducting beta tests with users in the San Francisco Bay Area and Celebration, Florida. One of the most common requests testers are making of their robots: getting the president's tweets read aloud to them. Grandkids, you're welcome.
Grandma's little helpers.
ElliQ isn't the only new robot promising to address the needs of the elderly. Here are some other offerings from around the world.
Designed by researchers from several European countries and currently available in Europe, this "safe and handy human helper" moves around on its own power and can manipulate objects--though you can also replace one of its arms with a drink tray. Compared with its predecessors, the current, fourth iteration of Care-o-Bot is friendlier in its expressions and behaviors.
A demographic imbalance of too many retirees and not enough young workers has pushed Japan to explore robots as care providers. The ursine-faced Robear, created by the national research institute Riken, is a cybernetic nursing aide, a gentle giant strong enough to lift patients out of bed without injuring them.
Buddy and Yumii
Developed by France's Blue Frog Robotics, Buddy is similar to ElliQ, an interactive companion and communications assistant. Equipped with wheels, it can also patrol its owner's home and alert emergency personnel to falls or other events. Another French-made robot, Yumii by Cutii, offers similar capabilities and is available by subscription.