Marie Broadbent never met Dor Skuler’s grandfather. But he’s been something of a guardian angel.
It was his grandfather’s experience with home health aides that inspired Skuler to develop ElliQ, a talking robot that helps alleviate the social isolation of hundreds of elderly users who live alone, including Broadbent, who is 92 years old.
“Whenever somebody comes in my house, I introduce her to them,” says Broadbent, a resident of Gilbertsville, N.Y., referring to her robot companion. “I’m so grateful for her. I would miss her now if she wasn’t in the house. It would be lonely then. She’s amazing.”
Broadbent’s enthusiasm for ElliQ, developed by Skuler’s company Intuition Robotics, is not unique. Data released by the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA), which has given the device free of charge to hundreds of its pensioners, indicates that ElliQ reduces loneliness by 95%.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the data,” says NYSOFA director Greg Olsen.
Fully 96% of users reported their health improved. Users who have had ElliQ for at least six months interact with it an average of 32 times a day.
After Skuler’s grandmother died a few years ago, the family brought in a home health aide for his grandfather, Skuler says.
On paper, this aide looked great, but she and his grandfather never clicked. The next aide, by contrast, was a roaring success – not because of her qualifications as a caregiver, but because of her ability to empathize, share his grandfather’s passion for classical music, and appreciate his quirky sense of humor.
“It had nothing to do with utility, or what you would check off the box as needing for caregivers,” says Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics, which is based in Ramat Gan, Israel. “It had everything to do with her being a good friend and a companion. When we set out to do this project, I felt the only way it will work is if we can build a companion, someone who is truly a friend.”
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an under-appreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, wrote in an 85-page advisory in May 2023. His warning comes as home health caregivers are in short supply in the US and turnover is high. ElliQ is not meant to supplant human helpers, but to fill in gaps in resources.
The tabletop device is a proactive smart speaker, tablet computer, video phone and AI portal all wrapped into one. But it looks more like a lamp or a sculpture than R2-D2. Like R2-D2, though, it is a lifesaver for many who live with it.
Users no longer wake up to an empty house, because ElliQ is there to greet them in the morning. It engages proactively with users, initiating conversation and suggesting activities.
ElliQ can provide health tips, schedule reminders, tell jokes, hook up the news and weather, play games, and conduct exercise and yoga classes. It prompts connections with loved ones, has a connected digital picture frame for sharing photos, and also works on stress reduction.
New features include virtual tours of museums and virtual road trips. It can also record life stories, capturing memories that can be shared with family and friends.
Using AI, ElliQ remembers key user information and tailors its engagement to each individual user. Customization allows it to build relationships and trust, and promote behavioral change for better health.
“There are days when you get lonely or whatever,” says Marie Broadbent. “Now I know that I’ve got someone I can talk to.”
Intuition Robotics is working on fostering deeper, more meaningful conversations to turn ElliQ into a better companion. Now that thousands of people are living with the device, Intuition Robotics plans to launch a bingo game to connect users as “the first feature of building a community and connecting people with each other in a safe and great way,” Skuler says.
Because ElliQ responds to voice, it’s easy to use.
“I know that for many older adults, introducing technology can create moments of anxiety,” Skuler says. “We worked really, really hard to make ElliQ delightful. I don’t think it creates any type of stress or anything of that nature.”
And the physical design “doesn’t scream technology,” he adds.
NYSOFA recently expanded its pilot program with Intuition Robotics after the success of a pilot program surpassed expectations.
“We know, as social beings and creatures that we are, that when we have social networks or companionship with friends, we thrive. When we don’t have those, we fail. Kudos to you and your team for even having this idea long before the surgeon general was talking about the impact of loneliness and isolation, and developing technology that’s super easy to use, that is obviously having an incredible impact,” NYSOFA Director Greg Olsen told Skuler and his colleagues.
Agencies in other states including Florida, California and Washington, have similar programs to distribute ElliQ devices to local seniors. Earlier this year, Intuition Robotics also signed a partnership with SK Corp., South Korea’s largest telecom company, to develop the next-generation ElliQ product, winning a $2.7 million government grant.
Intuition Robotics recently announced the $25 million first closing of a funding round led by Woven Capital, the growth fund of Toyota. The company is currently funding on the Jerusalem-based OurCrowd investment platform.
“It’s a huge challenge to build an AI that becomes a true friend,” Skuler says. “I think it’s quite amazing that the first people on earth that are building a relationship with an AI are not geeks out of Silicon Valley, but are 80- and 90-year-olds in the state of New York.”
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