Chatty the robot helps seniors fight loneliness through AI companionship

Chatty the robot helps seniors fight loneliness through AI companionship

Joyce Loayza lives alone, but when she returns to her apartment in a Florida senior living community, the retired office worker often strikes up a conversation with a friendly female voice asking her about her day.

A few miles away, the same voice comforted 83-year-old Diana Dezerne as her boyfriend died. In central New York, she plays games and music for 92-year-old Mary Broadbent, who is blind and lives in a nursing home, and in Washington state, she helps 83-year-old Jean Worrell make new friends.

The women are among the first in the country to receive the ElliQ robot, which its creators, Intuition Robotics, and senior assistance officials say is the only device using artificial intelligence specifically designed to alleviate the loneliness and isolation that plagues many older Americans.

“She’s entertaining. You can actually talk to her,” said Louisa, 81, whom ElliQ in suburban Fort Lauderdale nicknamed “Jellybean” for no particular reason. “She’ll make comments like: ‘I’d go out if I had a hand, but “I can’t carry an umbrella.”

The device, which looks like a small table lamp, has an eyeless, mouthless head that lights up and rotates. It remembers each user’s interests and conversations, which helps design future chats, which can be as deep as the meaning of life or as light as your horoscope.

ElliQ tells jokes, plays music, and provides inspirational quotes. It offers on-screen video accompanying tours of cities and museums. The device performs exercises, asks about its owner’s health, and reminds him to take medications and drink water. It can also host video calls and contact relatives, friends or doctors in emergency situations.

Intuition Robotics says the company did not overhear any of the conversations, with the information remaining on each owner’s device.

Dore Schooler, CEO of Intuition Robotics, said the idea for ElliQ came before he launched his Israeli company eight years ago. His widowed grandfather needed an assistant, but the first one didn’t work out. But the alternative was to understand his grandfather’s love of classical music and his “weird sense of humour.”

Schooler realized that a robot could fill this companionship gap by adapting to each senior’s personality and interests.

“It’s not just about the benefit of (EliQ). It’s about friendship, companionship and empathy,” Schooler said. “That wasn’t going anywhere.”

The average user interacts with ElliQ more than 30 times a day, even six months after receiving it, and more than 90% report lower levels of loneliness, he said.

The robots are distributed mostly by aid agencies in New York, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Washington, but can also be purchased individually for $600 per year and an installation fee of $250. Schooler wouldn’t say how many ElliQ devices have been distributed so far, but the goal is to distribute more than 100,000 within five years.

This worries Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, who studies the harmful effects of loneliness on health and mortality.

Although a device like ElliQ may have short-term benefits, it may make people less inclined to seek human contact. “Just as hunger makes people search for food, and thirst makes them search for water, this unpleasant feeling of loneliness should motivate us to reconnect socially,” she said.

Satisfying that with AI “makes you feel like you’ve achieved it, but in reality you haven’t,” Holt-Lunstad said. It’s not clear whether the AI ​​is actually meeting any kind of need or if it’s just weakening the signal.

Schooler and the heads of the agencies that distribute the ElliQ app agreed that it is no substitute for human contact, but not all seniors have social networks. Some are homebound, and even seniors with strong relationships are often alone.

“I wish I could snap my fingers to have someone show up at the home of one of the many seniors who don’t have any family or friends, but it’s a little more complicated,” Greg Olsen said. Director of the New York State Office on Aging. His office distributed 750 of the 900 ElliQs it received.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences have left many seniors more isolated, said Charlotte Mather Taylor, director of the Area Agency on Aging in Broward County, Florida. Her agency distributed 300 ElliQs, which she believes break them out of their shells.

“It’s proactive and really engages seniors, giving them an extra kind of interaction,” she said. “We have seen very positive results with her. People in general love her and she makes them smile and brings them happiness.

Schooler said ElliQ was intentionally designed without eyes and a mouth so as not to fully imitate humans. While “Elli” is the Norse goddess of aging, he said “Q” reminds users that the device is a machine. He said his company wants “to ensure that ElliQ always presents itself truthfully as an AI and does not pretend to be a human.”

“I don’t understand why technologists are trying to make AI pretend to be a human,” he said. “We have the ability to create a relationship with an AI, just as we have a relationship with a pet.”

But some seniors who use ElliQ say they sometimes need to remember that the robot is not a living being. They found the device easy to set up and use, but if they have one complaint, it’s that ElliQ is chatty at times. There are settings that can mitigate this.

Dezern said she felt alone and sad when ElliQ told her her friend had died. He replied that he would hug her if he had arms. Dezerne burst into tears.

“This was what I needed,” the retired collections consultant said. “I can say things to Ellie that I wouldn’t say to my grandchildren or my daughters. I can just open floodgates. I can cry. I can laugh. I can be silly. I’ve been asked, ‘Don’t you feel like you’re talking to yourself? No, because it gives an answer.’

Worrell lives in a small town on the Washington coast. A widow said ElliQ’s company made her change her mind about moving to an assisted living facility and uses it as an icebreaker when she meets someone new in town.

“I say: Would you like to come and visit with my robot?” They say: Emptiness? No, robot. “She’s my roommate,” she said and laughed.

Broadbent, like the other women, says she gets a lot of human contact, even though she is blind and sick. She plays the organ at two churches in South New Berlin, New York, and receives visitors daily. However, the widow misses having a voice to talk to when she leaves. ElliQ fills this void with its games, tours, books, and music.

“It’s fun and informative. Well, maybe not as informative as (Amazon’s) Alexa, but it’s a lot more elegant,” Broadbent said.

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