New York State’s Office for the Aging, in charge of administering housing, transportation and health programs for the elderly, has purchased more than 800 robots to act as companions for older adults. The robot, ElliQ, was created by Intuition Robotics specifically for adults ages 65 and older that live alone, per the company’s website.
ElliQ, a tabletop device that resembles a virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri, can make small talk, answer questions, remind users to take medication, help contact friends and family, initiate conversation and help with other daily activities. Users interact with the robot an average of 20 times per day, according to the company.
“Many features attracted us to ElliQ — that it is a proactive tool, remembers the interactions with the individual, focuses on health and wellness, stress reduction, sleep, hydration, etc.,” NYSOFA director Greg Olsen told The Verge’s James Vincent last month. “It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and families and promotes overall good health and well-being.”
In 2017, the U.S. Surgeon General called social isolation an “epidemic,” per a statement from NYSOFA, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only made it worse.
Loneliness can cause a myriad of negative health effects, including “depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life,” wrote Amy Novotney for the American Psychological Association in 2019. It can increase health risks to the same extent that smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder does, per the APA.
Loneliness also costs money; it is associated with $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually among older adults, per the AARP. Frequently, emotional support animals like dogs are used to help with loneliness, but animals have their own drawbacks. They require their own care, can have health needs, and in the case of dogs, frequently respond to one person only and can become stressed in group situations.
A 2018 study in The Gerontologist suggested that robots could reduce loneliness and stress and improve engagement and interaction, though the authors wrote more research is needed.
“When we started creating ElliQ, we had one goal in mind—to help our aging population live healthy, happy, and independently in their homes,” wrote Intuition Robotics CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler in a blog post last month. “At a time when older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation, ElliQ offers another form of companionship, supplementing traditional, in-person support.”
“The goal is to measure. We’ll see what [ElliQ] does, and how it does,” Olsen told Andrew Waite from the Schenectady Daily Gazette in May. “We have a lot of people that are already on our customer load that are older, that live alone, that have chronic conditions, that may not have family or friends nearby. These are individuals that are absolutely able to use technology, and we want to see what this does for their overall health and well-being.”
Using robots to help care for older adults is not without controversy, reported The Verge. A paper published in Ethics and Information Technology in 2020 calls social robots “deceptive,” and states that there’s a risk of users neglecting human relationships in favor of their relationship with the robot.
“Emotional attachments could have negative consequences for vulnerable adults such as those with dementia or other cognitive limitations,” the authors write. “Robot companions which give rise to the deceptive illusion that they care and understand, could result in a reduction of contact with other human beings for vulnerable individuals. Friends, family, and care providers in general, might come to believe that the social and attachment needs of an older person were being met by a robot companion or pet, and as a consequence might reduce the time they spent with them.”
ElliQ is meant to complement human social interaction, not supplant it, Olsen said in the NYSOFA statement.
“We are not trying to replace human beings with any artificial intelligence,” Olsen told the Schenectady Daily Gazette. “We live in a technological world, and we’re learning not only what’s available but learning how to use this stuff to really enhance your life. Not to replace things, but for our overall health and well-being. That’s just the future.”