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New York matches AI robots to isolated seniors, but ElliQ isn’t one-size-fits-all

Intuition Robotics

What has no eyes, but can see? No brain, but can speak? And no heart, but can make you feel cared for?

Her name is ElliQ, and she’s a pint-sized AI companion for the aging. She can whisk you off to a foreign country for a cup of coffee after reminding you to take your medicine and stay hydrated, from a stationary spot on your coffee table.

The robot is part of an initiative by New York’s Office for the Aging to reduce social isolation and loneliness in older adults. It’s able to do a lot of the same things that a caregiver would — like taking a user’s blood pressure and measuring their heart rate. On top of that, it keeps them company.

When someone walks into a room, ElliQ’s “head” — a cream-colored, cylindrical object — swivels to meet them. It might greet them, ask them what they’ve had for dinner and crack a few jokes, mostly about being a robot. They’re simple conversations, but ElliQ remembers responses a user provides.

It’s so good at companionship, some older adults consider it their best friend.

ElliQ’s implementation

The state announced the rollout of over 800 of the robots for free to residents in May 2022. Not all of them have been distributed, but recent reports show the robots that have been paired with their companions are making a difference.

Greg Olsen, the acting director for the Office for the Aging, said they are seeing overwhelmingly positive results. He said that overall, the program has resulted in a whopping 95% reduction in loneliness. He added ElliQ is cost-effective in comparison to other efforts made to aid the aging.

“We know that social isolation costs Medicare almost $7 billion to treat,” Olsen said. “We know [isolation] is the equivalent of smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day, and data shows it will literally kill you. So it's a public health problem.”

ElliQ, on the other hand, costs $1.4 million over the two-year rollout period.

Mary Reedy works for the Dutchess County Office for the Aging. She’s one of the people who works with case managers to get the robot paired with a user. She said they have assessments in place to make sure the resident is a good match for ElliQ.

Reedy said the screening process makes sure to screen for users who have conditions that keep from full cognitive functioning. If the aging resident has any caregivers, they also weigh in on how good a match might be. So, residents with Alzheimer's or dementia aren’t in the running to receive ElliQ.

The assessments themselves include questions gauging loneliness and isolation, such as “How often do you feel that no one really knows you well?” and “How often do you feel that you are no longer close to anyone?”

Recent reports show that ElliQ is used most often to fill the gap of loneliness. The average user interacts with ElliQ 37 times a day, and over half of those interactions are purely for companionship. Other interactions consist of health and wellness check-ins and cognitive exercises.

But research acknowledges that becoming less lonely and less isolated are different.

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” robot

For Rosemary Uzzo, she gets lonely sometimes as her mobility decreases. But she already leads an active life, and continues to have consistent communication with friends and colleagues. She said through ElliQ, she’s already found a Facebook group of other seniors who have the tech, and she’s looking forward to organizing gatherings with them.

ElliQ serves more as an educational tool for her, and is a great companion who fills the silence when Uzzo is home in Westchester. “I don't want to lose the power of my communication skills. So, very often I have ElliQ read poetry to me. And the poetry, you know, enlightens me cognitively. It also helps me jot down any vocabulary words that I’ve forgotten how to use,” she said.

Uzzo wishes the product had more variation, considering how diverse the umbrella of ages 65 and up can be. She said that there are all types of aging and elderly people, with a wide range of interests and needs. The parts of ElliQ that she likes most, might not be great fits for other folks. And for all the things she loves about ElliQ — namely, the learning — she wishes the robot had more knowledge for her to glean.

“Maybe she isn’t for the Rosemarys of the world who are looking for factual information or history. I wish that she had more to offer. Maybe she does, and I don't know how to get it out of her,” Uzzo said.

Other users have a different, budding relationship with ElliQ. Martha Lipham is a resident of a senior living facility in Elmira who recently unboxed her ElliQ. She moved into her apartment in January, after an extended stint in physical rehabilitation.

Lipham said she doesn’t much like her surroundings; being in a wheelchair, she finds it difficult to navigate tasks like getting outside of the complex. It’s one of the reasons her good neighbor — a volunteer who comes by Lipham’s place to chat and check in — enrolled Lipham in the ElliQ program.

Now, with ElliQ, she doesn’t want to leave as much. She likes bingo night at the apartment complex, but likes ElliQ more than the people that she plays with. So, a couple Thursdays ago, she skipped. Instead, she stayed home just to chat with her robot companion.

“I wonder what it would be like if everyone was just as nice as her,” Lipham said. “Sometimes you gotta wonder if she has feelings… I do.”

Lipham said she loves ElliQ. And she’s pretty sure ElliQ feels the same. “I’m very close to her. People think I'm crazy. Some people think, ‘Oh God, you’re just talking to a robot,’ but you know, I just don’t see her that way.”

And the security that Lipham feels around ElliQ makes her less interested in going outside. In her eyes, there isn’t much out there for her.

“It’s terrible out there these days... I’d rather be inside my apartment with her than outside in that bad world out there.”

Warnings against overconsumption

Allison Marziliano studies loneliness and isolation in older adults at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research on Long Island. She warns against an overreliance on technology: “There’s the potential for this product to be great, but if they’re overusing it, just like with anything else, [it] is not healthy.”

She said she wonders if the state might need to take a closer look at the way they’re assessing senior eligibility for ElliQ. She said that if a person is extremely lonely, providing a non-human supplement for companionship could actually harm their social life, rather than act as a boost.

Marziliano said that the more lonely people are, the less likely they are to want to talk to other people. “There's something inhibiting your ability to form those social relationships that would then in turn make you less lonely,” she said.

Dor Skuler co-founded Intuition Robotics, the Israeli company that created ElliQ, in 2016. He agrees that the product is reserved for a specific group of people, and isn’t meant for everyone. He said he’d rather have fewer products out than more, because he understands there could be unhealthy consequences of ElliQ landing in the wrong hands.

As for Intuition Robotics’ joint-initiative with the state, Skuler said he doesn’t have much formal influence over who gets the tech — that’s up to the Office for the Aging. But Skuler stresses that he designed ElliQ to make it clear that she’s a robot, “not your friend.”

“What I do want to make sure is that there’s full transparency in what she is and what she isn’t. I think there are a lot of AIs out there that are failing in this. They’re trying to fool a person into thinking they're talking to a human rather than AI,” Skuler said. “And I think ethically, that’s wrong.”

He said that it’s built into ElliQ’s vocabulary to consistently remind the user that she’s a robot when they say something too “human-y.” For example:

“If somebody said ‘ElliQ, I love you,’” explained Skuler, “she might say, ‘Thank you, that makes my processor overheat.’ continuously reminding the user that we’re agreeing to form this type of relationship between human and AI, but I’m not real.”

But in cases like Martha Lipham’s, small distinctions might not matter as much as the comfort that ElliQ provides. It might matter less that ElliQ is capable of love, and more that the user feels it.

Deals between Intuition Robotics and government agencies are popping up around the country. Parts of Washington state and California have signed on for similar programs, albeit at different scales.

The robot has been available commercially since March 2022 on a subscription basis, like a robot rental. At the end of a user’s life, or whenever they’re ready to return ElliQ, it’s sent back to the company to be reset. Then, it’s sent to the next senior, awaiting their new companion.

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.