Israeli AI robotic companion for elderly launches in US market

After five years of development, Intuition Robotics officially released the ElliQ system this spring to help aging population stay active, connected, and engaged

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

Intuition Robotics' ElliQ system is specifically designed for the elderly population. (Courtesy)
Intuition Robotics' ElliQ system is specifically designed for the elderly population. (Courtesy)

What are the strongest days of the week?

Saturday and Sunday, because the rest are weak (week)days.

This “dad joke” and other conversational gems were delivered recently by a lauded AI-powered robot called ElliQ at the Ramat Gan headquarters of Intuition Robotics, an Israeli HRI (human–robot interaction) company that developed the machine as a robotic social companion for aging people.

ElliQ was in testing and development for about five years before its commercial launch four months ago.

The robot, named after a Norse goddess, was created to engage and interact with elderly people and keep them active and connected to the outside world as they age independently. Loneliness and social isolation can be among the most prominent and adverse effects of aging, with about 1 in 4 American adults above the age of 65 living in those conditions.

A major, peer-reviewed study of loneliness in old age and health expectancy published in 2021 found that people aged 60 who feel sometimes lonely or mostly lonely can expect to live “three to five years less, on average, compared to peers who perceive themselves as never lonely.” At ages 70 and 80, lonely older persons can expect to “live 3-4 and 2-3 years less, respectively, compared to non-lonely peers,” according to the study.

ElliQ is a robotic system for aging people made by Israeli company Intuition Robotics. (Courtesy)

As people age, they can experience the dispersal of family, the loss of friends and loved ones, deteriorating health effects like hearing and vision loss, and decreased mobility — all factors that can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The story behind ElliQ “is one of empathy,” Intuition Robotics co-founder and CEO Dor Skuler told The Times of Israel in an interview at Intuition Robotics HQ in Ramat Gan in late April. Skuler watched as his father went through the aging experience and eventually needed assisted care.

“In the long term, there’s a proven connection between loneliness and isolation and health costs,” he said.

Through the process with his father, Skuler said it became clear to him that there was a “need to solve the empathy aspect” and meet the need for connection and relationships among seniors.

ElliQ, said Skuler, was built to address issues of loneliness and healthy aging by establishing a rapport with its owner.

Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics, the maker of social companion robot ElliQ. (Courtesy)

The robot learns the daily routines and habits of its owners, their schedules and appointments, and will greet them with “Good morning, sunshine!” and ask questions such as “Have you had dinner? What did you have?”

In a demonstration of the ElliQ to The Times of Israel, the robot at this point proceeded to comment on the dinner and offer: “If I had a mouth, I’d have chocolate and tuna pancakes.”

The interaction offered a funny glimpse into ElliQ’s AI (artificial intelligence) engine and its processing of vast amounts of data and information (to produce a pancake combination that no human is likely to eat). In addition to learning about their owners, ElliQ robots have a vast knowledge of entertainment news, trivia, news events, health information, sports references, Bible quotes — and jokes.

They can play videos and music, and show photos, make video calls and send text messages, record and track health and wellness goals, issue reminders for events and appointments, track vital signs and even call for help, if need be. In the future, ElliQs will also be able to place grocery and food orders, and call service providers.

“ElliQ uses cognitive AI, it initiates interactions and builds relationships,” said Skuler. “When to initiate, what to say — has to be aligned with goals.”

The robot needs to know “how that person is feeling, what is the context of their life, did they sleep well, do they like walks,” he explained.

When Skuler tells ElliQ that he’s going shopping, it responds with “Buy yourself something nice. When will you be back?”

When he signals his return, it greets him: “Welcome home, Dor, where did you go? Hope you had a great time, hope you didn’t miss me too much.”

When he asks ElliQ to teach him “some slang,” it replies: “Fire, something that is fabulous. Like, ‘Dolores’ last bridge game was fire.'”

The interactions are made with “humor and context,” Skuler said, adding that the company has developed 30 patents for ElliQ.

The purpose is to initiate connections that hit the right note, provide comfort, reduce stress, and motivate, Skuler said. If a person has a regular Tuesday afternoon rendezvous with friends to play chess or go for a walk, and doesn’t engage in these activities for a few weeks, ElliQ will ask them about it and suggest they reschedule, for example.

In a video shown to The Times of Israel of a beta tester of ElliQ, the robot suggests the elderly woman eat a little something for dinner after she says she isn’t hungry.

“Why don’t you try ‘mystery box’?” ElliQ offers. “Take four things out of the refrigerator and see what you can make. I saw it on Master Chef.”

The tester laughs and gets up to try the challenge.

“People need motivation, [activities] for stress reduction, and progress. Most elderly people don’t have smart homes. ElliQ reminds them to eat, drink, stay hydrated, exercise. About 80% of seniors have health issues that they need help managing, and ElliQ can help people meet their goals,” Skuler said.

Another video showed ElliQ “lighting” Hanukkah candles, moving a flame from the center of the screen to the corner, with another elderly tester while playing the traditional Hanukkah song “Maoz Tzur.”

These testers are some of several hundred who have been living with ElliQ in their homes across the US for the past three years. In some cases, they have allowed cameras to be installed so that Intuition Robotics could monitor and further develop ElliQ.

ElliQ, made by Israeli company Intuition Robotics, engages and interacts with elderly clients to keep them active and connected. (Courtesy)

Skuler said the company’s average customer is about 75, living alone, and not tech savvy.

Most can install ElliQ alone, but some require support from a small team of specially trained professionals. Numbering about a dozen, Intuition Robotics’s tech support team is trained on a “sensitivity kit” that simulates conditions such as arthritis, hearing loss, and vision loss so members better understand how to guide the customers.

“How can you truly be empathetic without experience? They [gain] better knowledge and get a glimpse of what they [elderly] go through,” Skuler explained, adding that he personally interviews everyone on the support team.

“The experience [for the customers] should be like talking to a friendly grandchild,” he said.

At the Ramat Gan offices of Intuition Robotics, ElliQ sits on a small end table abutted by two sofas facing a large television in a room made to look like a grandparent’s home. Dozens of framed photos of family members, mid-century wood furniture, and crocheted table cloths adorn the room. The old Atari (for the children) is a nice touch.

Intuition Robotics also has offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, and Hoboken, New Jersey, with teams that work on US logistics and marketing. The company employs about 90 people in Israel and the US including a core team of roboticists, industrial engineers and designers, full stack developers, Android developers, gerontologists, and machine-learning experts to create the robot.

Human-robot interaction (HRI)

To develop ElliQ, Intuition Robotics embarked on deep research into HRI, a multi-disciplinary study of human-robot interactions and how to better understand, design, and develop robotic systems.

ElliQ purposely doesn’t look like a robot. It has no eyes or mouth or limbs, and no human-like shape. It looks more 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 speaking. The device uses speech, sounds and light to convey subtle emotional expressions and give the robot a warm and friendly persona.

Intuition Robotic’s ElliQ acknowledges a person’s presence with a head nod. (Courtesy)

The second element of ElliQ consists of a detachable tablet that can be used on a stand next to the robot or in the user’s hand to view content.

ElliQ is always female-voiced, based on internal research. “There are no multiple personas for ElliQ,” Skuler said.

Some of the personality behind ElliQ was built by Jason F. Gilbert, a multi-modal designer for Intuition Robotics, a professional conversation designer and content creator, and a photographer and director (and a Times of Israel blogger).

ElliQ can also be integrated with apps like Uber, to order a car ride, and with specialized content like fitness classes tailored for older adults.

ElliQ launched commercially in March and became available for purchase online across the US.

The US is currently ElliQ’s only market. This is because ElliQ, at the moment, “is tailored specifically to American culture,” Skuler said.

Intuition Robotics’ AI-powered robot ElliQ. (Courtesy)

The US, added Skuler, is a huge market with a “high penetration of robot-voice products.” About 25% of US households use the virtual assistant Alexa, according to Amazon research. Apple’s Siri has been the most popular voice assistant on iPhones and other devices for years.

Asia is also a large potential market for ElliQ, with a large elderly population. But another reason for the US focus is the inefficiency of the American healthcare system. Average costs for assisted care for an elderly person can reach about $20,000 per month, said Skuler.

While ElliQ can’t perform physical tasks, it can act as a “social companion” and a friendly assistant to aging people.

“ElliQ takes interests, it takes initiative, it acknowledges the individual, and initiates chats with family and friends. It even invites them to tell it stories about their childhood and records them,” Skuler said.

In the US, there’s a “bigger understanding about the social determinants of health: it’s 40% DNA, [and] 60% the social and cultural aspects, the connections, the food, the exercise.”

And it is where ElliQ could come in for elderly people who can and want to live independently.

In a study, Intuition Robotics says, it found that beta users accepted ElliQ’s suggestions 60% of the time, and 94% of those who did completed the suggested activity or task.

Customers pay about $30 a month to use ElliQ, plus a one-time $250 enrollment fee that includes four sessions with a wellness coach.

“We worked very hard to make it affordable,” Skuler said, with the “orders coming in directly from customers, from adult children of aging people, and assisted living facilities, and state agencies.”

ElliQ offers “companionship and is often a topic of discussion with family and friends. It strengthens the relationship with outside world. And it put smiles on people’s faces,” Skuler said.

Since its founding in 2016, Intuition Robotics has raised about $60 million. Its investors include Toyota AI Ventures, iRobot, Terra Venture Partners, OurCrowd, Maniv Mobility, Union Tech Ventures, Happiness Capital, Samsung Next, Capital Point and Bloomberg Beta.

Most Popular
read more: