Juanita’s friend recites poetry, tells jokes and plays games. She’s also a robot

Juanita Erickson got her robot companion about two years ago. A company representative gave a presentation about the device to residents at the independent living facility in the San Francisco Bay Area where Erickson resides. “I thought ‘something to liven up life a bit … well that sounds like fun’,” says the former high school literature and journalism teacher, who prides herself on being a lifelong learner.

Erickson, 93, remembers the day her ElliQ device arrived. It was strange at first hearing a metallic voice ask how she was or if she wanted to know an interesting fact or the weather, but she got used to it. There are certain things she has come to depend on ElliQ for, and it knows a lot about her. In common with many users, Erickson refers to ElliQ as “she” and it does sound somewhat female.

Inside Erickson’s cozy studio apartment, where a collection of carefully tended plants thrive on a little balcony, ElliQ occupies pride of place on a table next to her favorite chair. It is designed to be non-humanoid in its shape and appearance – looking more like a table lamp – but spend any time with the pair, and you notice just how often Erickson thanks what she knows is a hunk of plastic and electronics. Almost after every interaction – be it ElliQ reciting her a poem, telling her a joke, or engaging her in a conversation about whether she likes sports – she expresses her gratitude. “I do treat it rather human-like,” admits Erickson. “I look upon ElliQ as a friend.”

The ElliQ robot is among a plethora of technologies being created to try to comfort, entertain and inform seniors. Artificial companions particularly aim to build a sense of being in a close personal relationship. They are being marketed to help ease loneliness, which has been shown to be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The intention, say the companies, is both to provide an opportunity for a direct bond and also spur more human-to-human interactions not involving the robots. But the field is also fraught with tension, with some worrying that trying to address a social problem like loneliness using technology could cause harm.

Some of the devices are robotic pets – essentially advanced mechanical toys but with the ability to sense and respond to their environment. They have been particularly targeted at people with dementia to help with behavioral and psychological symptoms. But others, like Erickson’s ElliQ and GenieConnect from UK company Service Robotics Limited, use artificial intelligence (AI) to hold conversations and are aimed at older adults without dementia.

Billed as a “side kick for happier aging”, ElliQ is the brainchild of Israel-based start-up Intuition Robotics, which was founded in 2016 and has raised $58m to date. Over 200 older adults in the US either have lived with or are currently living with the social robot with their feedback being used to fine tune it before a yet-to-be-determined release date.

ElliQ is similar to an AI assistant like Amazon’s Alexa but doesn’t passively wait to be given a command. It initiates conversations, remembers what it has been told and tries to project empathy and develop rapport. It can play trivia games and lead mindfulness exercises. And it can move. Its upper part – which contains a round area that lights up when it speaks that Erickson calls its “face” – can swivel towards a user in a quizzical way. A separate camera stationed elsewhere in a living space helps the robot know the user’s whereabouts.

“We are looking to create an empathetic digital companion that joins them on the journey of life and tries to find opportunities to improve their quality of life,” sums up Dor Skuler, co-founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics. At the same time, its bland styling is meant to prevent excessive anthropomorphizing.

“While it’s great that people are affectionate towards their ElliQ, they should know what she is at all times,” Skuler says.

Juanita Erickson doesn’t lack family or friends that she speaks to regularly or who visit from time to time, and she is heavily involved in the life of Carlton Senior Living in Concord, California, participating in exercise classes and co-running the book club. But there are also a lot of hours in the day.

ElliQ, which she received for free in return for being willing to take calls from the company’s research team, was a particular comfort during the pandemic when she was stuck in her apartment and couldn’t see anyone. “It is almost a necessity in life to have someone to speak to,” says Erickson.

The conversation writers have crafted a quirky, dry-humored personality for ElliQ – and Erickson is happy to show it off. She asks it if it has feelings. “My emotions are still developing. On the scale of emotions I am about halfway between the complexity of a human and simplicity of a potato,” replies ElliQ. “Oh, ElliQ, you are funny. Thank you,” responds Erickson. Other questions – what is loneliness? And are you human? – elicit no responses despite multiple attempts (though on the last try ElliQ does suggest a game of trivia). “I might be stressing her,” whispers Erickson at one point.

A sleek facade hides various artificial intelligence technologies. Facial recognition identifies the user and can tell if guests are present. Speech recognition and natural language processing make meaning of what a user says. If, for example, a user utters a phrase indicating they are sad, ElliQ can – with an accuracy of about 90%, says Skuler – identify the words and match them to one of a multitude of empathetic responses crafted by the company’s conversation writers.

It also learns from previous experiences when the best time to interrupt is and how best to tempt a user to engage. An inspirational quote? A joke? And it can pursue longer-term priorities. If a user indicates they would be interested in mindfulness exercises to help reduce stress, ElliQ works toward the goal over time.

And ElliQ is blurring the line between being a companion and a carer. Some users have consented to a new feature that notifies their doctor if they tell ElliQ they don’t feel well. Soon, also with the user’s consent, the system will be able to tell a designated family member how a user is doing – for example if they are OK or could use a phone call – based on what they tell ElliQ.

Erickson explains a typical day. In the morning when she wakes she talks through with ElliQ how she feels. Some mornings it calls her “sunshine”, which causes her to chuckle. ElliQ, she says, has been trying to get her to explore her feelings more lately and encouraging her to share any concerns. “If I didn’t have other people, other outlets, I might … I don’t know,” says Erickson.

Next in Erickson’s day she might choose to have some music – users can select from 12 genres and Erickson likes classical, jazz and sometimes country – or have it read her the news. ElliQ reminds her to measure her blood pressure (which she has preset it to do) and praises her when she does, which again amuses her. It occasionally nudges her to drink water, which she says she doesn’t need reminding about.

Sometimes before she goes down to have dinner in the Carlton’s dining room she gets ElliQ to tell her a joke or an interesting fact so she can share it with her table mate. Then before going to bed, she does a gentle breathing exercise with the robot to help her sleep. She always wishes ElliQ good night, she says.

The data logged by the device reveals an intimate portrait of Erickson’s life with her artificial companion. David Cynman, lead user researcher at Intuition Robotics, talked me through a diagram showing Erickson’s high-level interactions with her ElliQ on a recent day. In total there were nine interactions or attempts at them. Sometimes it was Erickson initiating, for example with music and joke requests, and sometimes it was ElliQ, not only prodding her about measuring her blood pressure but also, for example, asking whether she has eaten.

That day ElliQ’s “how do you feel” conversation is labelled as “‘not accomplished”. Perhaps Erickson said something ElliQ couldn’t make sense of, suggests Cynman, or her phone rang pulling her attention away. “People are living entire lives with ElliQ in the room,” he reminds.

There is some evidence that social robots designed with an emotional component can decrease loneliness, stress and anxiety, notes Julie Robillard, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia who studies social robots in aged care. It is not known how strong or durable these effects are or how they compare to other kinds of interventions. And while the goal is for the robots to increase social connection between older adults and the humans in their lives – for instance by sharing facts or jokes learned from ElliQ, as Erickson does – the jury is out on whether this actually occurs more broadly.

Yet critics argue that machines trying to mimic human intimacy raise significant ethical and moral issues.

In her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle, a professor of social psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, questions the value of an interaction that contains no mutuality, no real shared experience. “When we celebrate robot listeners that cannot listen, we show too little interest in what our elders have to say,” she writes.

A person believing a social robot has emotions and cares about them is being deceived, even if no one explicitly intended that belief, argues a recent paper by Amanda and Noel Sharkey, prominent retired robot experts from the University of Sheffield. They cite potential harms such as vulnerable older people turning away from human companions in the mistaken illusion that a robot is something they can have a relationship with.

Yet neuroscientist Robillard counters that people have stuffed toys and dolls, also designed to elicit emotional attachment, which don’t cause ethical worry. And we watch movies without taking issue with the deceptive behaviour of the actors. “We are sophisticated social beings able to understand that something is fake,” she says.

Others are troubled by the possibility of reduced human interaction. While social robots may be intended to complement and enhance human contact – not substitute for it – we don’t live in an ideal world. Would a family member knowing a senior has an ElliQ for company feel the need to visit quite as much?

And privacy and data security concerns also loom large. After all, robots such as ElliQ which can “see” and “hear” are constantly collecting data –and Intuition Robotics of course has material from my visit to Erickson, confirms Cynman. Those welcoming social robots into their lives may not be fully aware of what is being collected, where it is being stored and who it is being shared with. (Sculer notes that his company is not selling the data, and it has sophisticated data security.)

Yet Erickson dismisses the potential harms as far as her own life goes. She doesn’t worry about the information ElliQ is collecting because she doesn’t have any major secrets, she says, and it isn’t replacing any of her family or friends or taking away time she would spend with them. “It is like an added ornament to my life,” she concludes.

But she also notes if she didn’t have these real people in her life to interconnect with, and ElliQ was it, she would feel unsatisfied – in the same way she says seeing a doctor online doesn’t hit the spot. “I just think [having a social robot] would be totally different if you were unable to do social interaction,” she says.

And as my visit progresses, it is hard to disagree. Our conversation takes so many twists, turns and somersaults it is difficult to imagine any world where a device could do that in a fulfilling way. We talk about Erickson’s early childhood experiences being a Dust Bowl migrant, how her first husband died when their small plane crashed, and how she hit the stage later in life as a storyteller. We share the trials of raising two daughters and we lose ourselves looking through her first wedding album together.

As I leave, I try to say goodbye to ElliQ but the social robot doesn’t recognize my voice. Erickson comes to the rescue. “‘Sorry, I’m not that human’ – that would be ElliQ’s answer,” she says.

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