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January 11, 2017      

As populations age worldwide, older people are often isolated because of health and mobility problems and difficulty with using new technologies. A robot named ElliQ aims to change that.

Intuition Robotics today emerged from “stealth mode” and announced ElliQ, which is designed to help older adults stay socially and physically active.

Like some social robots, ElliQ uses a combination of movements and voice interactions to communicate with end users. However, “her” artificial intelligence capabilities and design are uniquely designed to serve the elderly, according to Dor Skuler, founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics.

Business Takeaways:

  • Aging populations, particularly in East Asia, Europe, and North America, face mental and physical health problems resulting from isolation.
  • Intuition Robotics plans to relieve this isolation with ElliQ. The social robot incorporates machine learning to be a companion and is designed to be easy for the elderly to use.
  • Not only is ElliQ intended to be a companion and coach for older adults, but “she” could also help them stay connected with loved ones and the wider world.

Robots to fight loneliness

A study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that 43 percent of older adults reported feeling lonely, and 1 in 2 women aged 75 and over live alone. Isolation can lead to other health problems, including Alzheimer’s.

At the same time, 77 percent of seniors said they need help using new technologies, according to the Pew Research Center.

Dor Skuler, founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics

“We like to think of [ElliQ] as part communication coordinator, part facilitator of lifelong learning, and part coach,” says Intuition Robotics founder and CEO Dor Skuler.

“Our goal is to leverage a combination of our proprietary technology, emotive interaction models, and gerontology insights with elegant design to empower older adults to intuitively interact with technology, easily connect with content and loved ones, and pursue an active lifestyle,” Skuler said. “We like to think of her as part communication coordinator, part facilitator of lifelong learning, and part coach.”

Thanks to machine learning, ElliQ can understand the user’s personality, preferences, and habits. The robot can then suggest going for a walk, watching a TED talk, or contacting family members through Facebook Messenger.

“Our robot is proactive rather than reactive — she observes and gives reminders, plays music, and shows pictures,” Skuler told Robotics Business Review. “Siri, Alexa, and others are reactive. The algorithms are an order of magnitude more complex to make robots proactive.”

ElliQ follows design philosophy

Many social robots, including many seen at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, are humanoid to facilitate communications. By contrast, ElliQ looks more like a home appliance, with a swiveling head and a separate touchscreen. The robot does include interface features meant to be intuitive for older users.

“We understand that other companies are hedging their bets with social robots by mentioning helping older adults,” said Skuler. “But we focus on this market, and ElliQ is tailored for maximum impact and adoption. It’s challenging because older adults are often laggards in adopting new technologies.”

“The idea of having a robot companion is quite dystopian, especially for older generations,” said Yves Behar, CEO and chief designer at award-winning industrial design firm Fuseproject. “Through years of research, we were able to develop a design language and user experience that feels natural, with subtle expressions to develop a unique bond between ElliQ and its owner.”

Yves Behar, award-winning designer at Fuseproject

Robots don’t have to resemble their movie counterparts, says award-winning designer Yves Behar.

“I often say that the perfect robot shouldn’t look like a Hollywood robot at all,” he added. “Rather, it should be a device that fits seamlessly into your home and enhances your everyday life.”

ElliQ’s “social director” portion includes emotive gestures, speech, and light for “natural communications,” as well as facial recognition.

“She can look up, look down, and express herself in ways that are immediately understandable as shy or embarrassed,” Skuler said.

“ElliQ is fine-tuned to English, so cultural changes might be needed for multilingual use,” he acknowledged. “The feminine persona came out of testing with older adults. We found that, statistically speaking, women preferred a female voice, and men were either indifferent or preferred a female.”

The tablet can be taken out of its cradle.

“We found that many users would put ElliQ on an end table next to them, but that’s not the ideal location for watching something,” Skuler said. “The screen has a kickstand and an anti-slip grip.”

“By being alongside users, ElliQ can ask if they want to see pictures and look at them with them,” he said. “The separation between the screen and robot helps with things like closed captioning, since 30 percent of potential users are hard of hearing.”

Learning in the cloud

Intuition Robotics was founded by entrepreneurs and executives who previously founded and managed Alcatel-Lucent’s CloudBand telecommunications venture.

Intuition Robotics team

The team at Intuition Robotics includes people with strong high-tech experience.

“After a B2B perspective, we wanted to do something that would help people in the real world,” Skuler said. “A lot of people were talking about loneliness and isolation, but many projects tended to be academic, rather than about bringing a product to market.”

“My background in software and cloud technology is very relevant,” Skuler said. “There have been fundamental changes in the way that you build robots and services, thanks to things like voice recognition and computer vision.”

As for security and privacy concerns, Skuler said, “We never send pictures; only the encrypted metadata is shared.”

ElliQ Draws Talent

In addition to Dor Skuler and Yves Behar, Intuition Robotics’ team includes the following tech luminaries:

  • Yuval Benjamini, senior lecturer in the statistics department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Stein Fellow at Stanford University’s statistics department
  • Amir Faintuch, senior vice president at Intel Corp., head of platform engineering, for cognitive computing, computer vision, and the Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Guy Hoffman, head of the Human-Robot Collaboration Lab at Cornell University, formerly at the MIT Media Lab for personal robotics, for human-robot interaction
  • Gal Kaminka, head of the Maverick Group, the Computer Science Department and Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar Ilan University, and winner of the Landau Prize for Research and Sciences, for AI and robotics
  • Don Norman, former vice president of advanced technologies at Apple and “guru of user-centric design,” according to Skuler, for user experience simplification
  • Paolo Pirjanian, recently chief technology officer and head of R&D at iRobot and former CEO of Evolution Robotics (acquired by iRobot)

“We had to find a happy balance between an immediate response to users and lag,” explained Skuler. “It’s a combination of decision making done in real time aboard the robot and updated machine-learning policies from the cloud. Voice recognition and actual learning happen in the cloud.”

Intuition Robotics logo

“Building on the Android platform and machine learning in the cloud — that wasn’t possible to do even a year ago,” he added. “Our co-founders started a year and a half ago.”

“We’re taking great pains to control the user experience and make it inherently simple for third-party developers to create apps,” he said.

“Our robot can say, ‘Hey, why don’t you listen to some Frank Sinatra?’ and it shows his picture and a note, easing interaction and mood,” he said.

“ElliQ also includes a shared calendar for caregivers, appointments, and taking pills,” Skuler explained. “We’re fortunate that Google invited us to be part of the closed alpha for its cloud learning service. We’re now in open beta.”

“ElliQ could never replace human interaction, but it can be an important motivating factor in keeping older adults healthy and active when living alone,” Behar said.

Funding and sharing a vision for the future

“We were funded in February, and we’ve made a lot of progress since then,” Skuler said. “We didn’t do a formal round, but one of the investors was Bloomberg Beta. We’re always looking for more capital.”

Intuition Robotics also benefited from a two-week immersion program between Silicon Valley and Israel. “An executive at Uber/Otto was my mentor, and I learned a lot,” Skuler said.

Starting tomorrow, the Design Museum in London will exhibit a prototype of ElliQ as part of its “New-Old: Designing for Our Future Selves” exhibition.

“We plan to start offering the product to adult children of older adults who can help with setup,” Skuler said. “We’re targeting the ‘aging in place’ market.”

ElliQ is designed to help older people stay active.

ElliQ’s tablet is intended to be used separately from its tabletop robot.

Intuition Robotics, which has offices in San Francisco and Israel, has conducted testing in Israel with a community of retired native English speakers.

“It was a great testing ground for us,” Skuler said. “We worked closely with about 24 families — they helped influence design and feature selection. We’ve grown attached to some of these families.”

“Only people can truly solve loneliness, but we can allow people to communicate with loved ones in an easier way,” he said. “ElliQ has an integrated chatbot in Facebook Messenger, users can have an applet for a TED talk, and the robot is also integrated with Skype for video chat — you don’t need to open the app, sign in, etc.”

Intuition Robotics plans to begin a trial deployment of working prototypes in the Bay Area next month.

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