To grow old is obviously a blessing, but it can also be a lonely journey. Many live alone at home, relying on phone calls or — if they know how to use it — technology to stay in touch with children or grandchildren far away.
Enter Israeli startup Intuition Robotics, which emerged from stealth on Wednesday, unveiling ElliQ , its artificial-intelligence based robot companion that it says will keep older adults active and engaged with family members by helping to make technology use easier.
ElliQ intentionally doesn’t look like a robot. With no eyes or mouth, it looks like a little mushroom-shaped lamp, with lights flickering and the head turning and bending to acknowledge a person’s presence or to mimic head gestures while expressing emotions.
“There are a few companies in elder tech which address medical issues or falls, but no one is actually addressing loneliness or social isolation,” said Dor Skuler, CEO and founder of Intuition Robotics. The goal, he said, is to combine technology with the study of old age, and an elegant design, for a product that will “empower older adults to intuitively interact with technology and easily connect with content and loved ones, and pursue an active lifestyle.”
ElliQ is part communication coordinator and part coach, he said. “She’s easy to talk to, simple to operate and understands her owner,” he said, referring to ElliQ as a female companion.
According to Age UK, a British charity, nearly half of all people aged 75 and over live alone and more than 1 million say they always or often feel lonely. Thirty-six percent speak to less than one person a day and 11% say they spent five days or more a month without seeing anyone. Even if they rely more and more on technology to stay in touch, older adults often find the technology confusing, and nearly half the older people surveyed in the UK say that TV or pets are their main form of companionship.
Being physically and mentally active, however, has huge health and cognitive benefits.
“If we are more active we recover more quickly from illness and have a better quality of life,” said Skuler.
The Norse goddess who defeated Thor
Named after Elli, a Nordic goddess of old age in who defeated Thor in a wrestling match, the robot acknowledges your presence with a head gesture when you enter the room, just like a dog acknowledges your entry. The letter Q, by the way, was added to the name to elicit a stronger response from the machine when talked to.
ElliQ then proactively interacts with the person, suggesting activities like offering to connect them with digital content like TED talks, music, games or audio books; reminding the person when it’s time for their medication or suggesting they take a walk, as they have been cooped up all day and the weather outside is nice and balmy. ElliQ will also ask the person if they want to connect with family members or friends, either by phone or through technology like chat bots linked to Facebook Messenger.
The technology uses a combination of tools, including cognitive computing, natural communication techniques, speech recognition technologies and computer vision to make communication with the robot more effective. ElliQ has the ability to understand context and autonomously make decisions against a set of predetermined goals, created by experts in gerontology and family members. She will learn from previous experiences with the person, understanding when is the best time to offer music or a game of Sudoko, or suggest a walk.
“We have learned that when someone suggests an activity to an older person, if it is personalized and relevant they will likely say yes,” said Skuler.
Family members will help upload the basic information about the people: are they morning or afternoon people, what medications do they need to take and when, who is in the family circle that calls can and should be made to.
The Design Museum in London will showcase a prototype of ElliQ as part of its ‘New Old: Designing for our Future Selves’ exhibition, opening on Wednesday. ElliQ’s design was done in collaboration with industrial designer Yves Béhar and his studio, fuseproject. Béhar has collaborated with partners such as Issey Miyake, Prada and SodaStream and his works are included in permanent collections in museums worldwide.
The robot comprises two separate elements: ElliQ, the social director, exhibits human characteristics through gestures animated by movement, speech, sounds and light. A LED lighting display, along with a wide range of motions, is utilized to convey subtle emotional expressions and give the device a friendly and warm personification. The second element consists of a separate screen — a detachable tablet — that can be used on a stand or in the user’s hand to view content.
The company plans to start trials of the product in San Francisco in February, said Skuler, with additional trials with English speakers also starting in Israel.
Skuler, who underwent training in Israel’s elite military intelligence unit 8200, founded the company in 2015 together with a team of friends who previously worked with him in the creation of a cloud telecom venture within Alcatel-Lucent. Together they set out to create a project with a high social impact, said Skuler, choosing to develop a social companion technology that would positively impact the lives of millions of older adults.
An 11-man team of roboticists, industrial designers, full stack developers, Android developers, gerontologists, and machine learning experts work on the development of the product out of the Ramat Gan office of the company. Engineers were doing debugging and refining the system’s interactions last week. Skuler did not say when he expected the product to start sales.
Besides attracting designer Béhar to its mission, the company has also worked with Prof. Don Norman, a former VP of Advanced Technologies at Apple, and an Intel senior vice president Amir Faintuch, along with academic experts in the fields of cognitive computing, machine intelligence, and robotics.
“It is such a good mission that we have had a 100 percent response rate from the people who we approached for help,” said Skuler.
To date the company has raised “a healthy seed round” from investors, including Terra Ventures, and Bloomberg Beta, the venture capital firm of Bloomberg L.P., and Jerusalem based OurCrowd, Skuler said.
“ElliQ could never replace human interaction, but it can be an important motivating factor in keeping older adults healthy and active when living alone,” said Yves Béhar, CEO and Chief Designer at fuseproject.