One of the best use cases for service robots is to let people “age in place,” letting them live independently as long as possible in their own homes rather than move in with family or an expensive nursing home. The ElliQ social robot by Intuition Robotics was designed with these users in mind. At last week’s CES 2019 event in Las Vegas, the company announced that ElliQ is available for preorder.
“We came out of stealth with a prototype two years ago, and ElliQ was admitted into a design museum,” recalled Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Israel-based Intuition Robotics. “After 11 months of beta testing, we’re pleased to be starting sales of the product.”
Beta-testing a new entity
During the beta tests, people aged 62 to 97 in California each had ElliQ for three to six months, Skuler told Robotics Business Review during a demonstration at CES.
“They learned what it means to have a social robot and have it as part of their daily lives,” he said. “We’ll be shipping this coming summer in major U.S. cities.”
“The most surprising feedback was how people relate to the product,” said Skuler. “The first week or two is a honeymoon period, but when you talk with users after two to three months and ask them how they see ElliQ, they all had different words.”
“It’s clearly not just a device, but it’s clearly not a person,” he added. “They said it’s a new entity, a new creature, a presence, or a companion. One tester said, ‘She and I are learning to do things together.’ They fully bought into ElliQ’s persona.”
ElliQ includes Harman Kardon sound, three brushless motors for its swivel “head” that provides gestural context, and a removable tablet.
Designing for unpredictability
“With that acceptance came a whole set of expectations that we didn’t expect,” Skuler said. “Testers wanted ElliQ to surprise them, not repeat herself, and act in ways that are lifelike, even though they know it’s not a person. We designed it to clearly be a device — no eyes or humanoid body, a non-human name. If you ask ElliQ what her favorite food is, she says, ‘Electricity.'”
“This forced us to create a huge amount of content, allowing the system to roam in a less-controlled way and be less predictable,” he said. “ElliQ can say, ‘Good morning’ in different ways, using different words, lights, and timing, or not at all.”
While users may not want overly predictable devices, they are not yet used to proactive ones. ElliQ can do things such as share trivia or suggest that the user listen to music, drink water, go for a walk, or contact grandchildren.
“The acceptance was phenomenal,” Skuler said. “It must choose the right time to interact, not interrupt you, and say something relevant, based on what else is going on in the room. It’s not just responding in a preprogrammed way; it’s initiating suggestions.”
The interactions during the CES demo were so natural, it was easy to forget how much work went into getting them right. Unlike digital assistants or smart speakers, Intuition Robotics’ companion robot isn’t merely controlled by commands.
“Users liked ElliQ’s ability to wake up, acknowledge them, and offer interesting facts,” he added. “By being proactive, it can make people feel less lonely and help connect them to the world.”
Q takes artificial intelligence on the road
“Platform Q is the brain of the system that understands, decides, and acts,” said Skuler. “It’s proactive AI, based on contextual understanding, what we call ‘ambient intelligence.'”
“We’ve been approached in the past year by very large companies that are interested in AI and new types of interaction,” he said. “We’re moving from a digital assistant to a digital companion. It’s not just voice-driven, but it’s also multimodal in interaction and has an underlying persona.”
“We’re taking the ‘Q’ out of ElliQ and making the technology available to other parties,” said Skuler. “Our first customer is Toyota Research Institute [TRI], which will embed the platform in its new concept car.”
As autonomous vehicles approach, TRI has said it hopes to redefine the user experience, as well as better convey their maintenance state and road conditions.
“We’ve entered a period of co-driving, which creates anxiety,” Skuler observed. “We’ll need to negotiate the handoffs, and it’s going to be a dialogue, based on what the car is doing and what the driver is doing.”
“Normally, you take perceptive agents to have contextual understanding, but you can’t do it at scale in a dynamic environment like a home or a car with a rule-based engine,” he said. “The technique we developed allows for the product’s capabilities to be represented as little AI agents that have a goal and want to run at a given time, but they’re in competition with other agents for telling jokes or reminding you to take medication.”
“There are other agents that don’t want to bother you or embarrass you in front of your friends,” said Skuler. “For example, if you had a friend over, the latter would win over a reminder to take your meds. It tries to understand the right time to initiate activities.”
“This is more engaging than repetitive behavior, and once you have a conversation, it’s not requiring the user to remember what it can do,” he said. “With natural language processing, context is built in, so users don’t have to remember precise syntax.”
ElliQ isn’t idle; she’s thinking
“When ElliQ does nothing, it’s not that it’s idle, but it made the decision to show pictures,” noted Skuler. “Once we decide it’s time to say, ‘Good morning,’ it comes from a collection of expressions and ways of using the screen and lights. We’re using machine learning to determine which ones to take from the library.”
“The Q platform is all of that, but it’s not in our hardware,” he added. “We don’t decide on which cameras or hardware a customer uses, but it can choose appropriate expression on given platform and execute them.”
“Q can be a proactive agent that’s aware of what’s happening in the cabin, getting smarter so it can make better decisions for interactions,” said Skuler. “For instance, a smart car could alter the cabin temperature or engage a drowsy driver in conversation.”
Investor interest, pricing
Last summer, Intuition Robotics was one of the first recipients of funding — $14 million — from TRI, in addition to other investment.
“Many times, people in the venture community are hesitant in value, but here, the relationship started with a clear vision, first manifested in investment,” Skuler said. “The teams got closer, built trust, and iterated together on a vision for the automotive industry, translated into commercial relationship.”
The Center for Aging + Brain Health Innovation is the first commercial purchaser of ElliQ. Led by the Baycrest academic health sciences center, it will study how ElliQ will decrease social isolation among older adults.
ElliQ is priced at $1,499, with free in-home installation, stated Intuition Robotics. Preorder customers will get a year of free support. After a promotional period, subscriptions will cost $35 to $50 per month, depending on the tier of service.