A New AI Assistant for the Elderly

Startup Intuition Robotics emerged from stealth on January 11, 2017, announcing a social robot aimed at keeping older adults active and engaged. The design and actions of the artificial intelligence-based device, ElliQ, make it look and feel less like a traditional robot and more as a friendly and approachable digital companion. It is unveiled this week as part of the exhibition New Old: Designing for our Future Selves at The Design Museum in London and was developed in collaboration with famed industrial designer Yves Béhar and his studio, fuseproject.

intuition_robotics_57636_highres-2The world’s advanced economies are facing today the challenge of responding to the needs of a rapidly aging population (about 15% of people in the United States and 26% in Japan are older than 65). Loneliness and social isolation are serious issues that sometimes accelerate specific health conditions and worsen the physical disabilities of older adults. “We felt that in our next venture we wanted to do something that will have actual meaning and impact in people’s lives,” says CEO and co-founder Dor Skuler, a serial entrepreneur with background in cyber security and cloud computing, explaining the motivation for founding Intuition Robotics.

ElliQ was developed with the help of 24 older adults and their families, providing ongoing feedback to the development team and allowing them to directly observe their experience with the product. Other outside advisors include Professor Guy Hoffman of Cornell University (see his TED talk Robots with Soul) who assisted with making ElliQ socially expressive; Professor Gal Kaminka of Bar Ilan University, an expert on developing robots that are socially intelligent; and Don Norman, an expert on user-centered design (and former VP of Advanced Technologies at Apple and currently the Director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego).

In a statement, Yves Béhar said: “The idea of having a robot companion is quite dystopian, especially for older generations. 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. ElliQ could never replace human interaction, but it can be an important motivating factor in keeping older adults healthy and active when living alone.”

The resulting product has a number of components: An LED lighting display which conveys subtle emotional expressions and give the device a friendly and warm personification; a separate screen that operates in a cradle display or in the user’s hand; and a cloud-based component, its first iteration being a chatbot linked to Facebook Messenger. Using machine learning, ElliQ learns the preferences, behavior and personality of her owner, and proactively recommends activities based on that history and recommendations by the owner’s family.

Knowing what to suggest and when and making the device emotive enough so the user likes it, are challenges that the developers of ElliQ have attempted to master. This was important given their goal of differentiating the product from other personal or home robots on the market today. According to Skuler, most existing products are general-purpose in the sense that they are not focused on the needs of older adults. And those that have been developed specifically for this segment of the population, by and large focus on physical disabilities (e.g., assisting with lifting and carrying). Another important difference is being proactive rather than reactive (ala Alexa or Siri), suggesting a relevant activity, at a relevant time, based on daily goals.

Why “ElliQ”? “Girl power,” says Skuler. Elli is the goddess of old age in Norse mythology and she is said to have defeated Thor in a wrestling match. The “Q” was added to make it a unique word in English, so it can be used as the “wake word” for the device.  And what’s next for the powerful and intelligent assistant? A trial phase in the homes of older adults in the Bay Area, California.

Originally published on Forbes.com