Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on our sister publication Robotics Business Review.
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.
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.
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.
“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 CES 2017, 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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.