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Robot companions are here, just don’t get too attached

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For an aging population, companion or “social” robots have a lot of promise; they could assist with everyday tasks, help keep in touch with family and friends, and even combat loneliness. But it’s worth wondering whether we should worry about becoming too emotionally attached to a machine.

ElliQ is the latest sidekick to join this new brave new set of companion bots. Made by Intuition Robotics in Israel, ElliQ is described as a “social entity” that helps older adults stay independent, active, and engaged.

Its makers understand the bond formed with a companion machine is very different than one formed with a human, but striking the right balance between usefulness and personality in a companion robot is tricky, especially when it comes to a vulnerable population like the elderly. Where does the line between meaningful friendship and artificial tool lie?

That’s the question Intuition Robotics is trying to answer, or rather, manufacture. Turns out, it’s a complicated, emerging science that involves a lot more than circuits.

How human?

ElliQ companion robot with tablet

To find middle-ground, Intuition Robotics relies on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) sciences. HRI is a new science that replaces “social robotics” as the study between robotics, AI, cognitive science, psychology, interaction design, biology, pedagogy, sociology and philosophy.

Basically, HRI investigates how different behaviors and movements of robots affect behaviors and feelings of humans.

“We wanted to understand: what are the requirements for people that are older?” says Dor Skuler, CEO and founder of Intuition Robotics. “Most of the technology that surrounds them has been designed for people that are 25 to 35 years old. Very few people have designed wonderful technology for older adults.”

Dr. Dor Skuler CEO Intuition Robotics
Dor Skuler, CEO and founder of Intuition Robotics

Skuler and his team worked with 125 older adults for several years to finetune ElliQ, applying HRI principles with rigorous testing. Team members lived among residents in independent living facilities for weeks at a time. The team even gained permission to install cameras in people’s homes, so they could not only see from the robot’s perspective but from the user’s, too.

Making a cute, animal-like robot, is somewhat easier (think Furby and Wall-E, with big anime eyes and baby-like gurgling sounds), but you get into some murky ethical territory here, too. According to HRI, good robot design should build relationships, not create emotional dependency. For an older adult suffering from dementia, a robo-pet can seem too much like the real thing.

Instead of replicating humans, companion roboticists at ElliQ were looking to design services that complement humans and their lives, rather than copy them. Humanoid designs have come a long way, but anything that is too life-like can quickly go from adorable to creepy or even menacing. A robot companion entering the uncanny valley is not a great idea for the elderly.

So ElliQ is an “objectoid.” She has no eyes. Her name sounds vaguely electric, and her voice maintains a staccato “robot accent.” She’s a quasi-robot pal, carefully designed to have some warm and familiar characteristics, while still looking very much like a machine.

In other words—a little bit goes a long way.

Who’s in charge?

ElliQ companion robot with tablet

The seniors in ElliQs testimonials seem nonetheless taken with her. “They don’t see ElliQ as a device; they see it as a new entity in their lives,” Skuler says. “It’s almost like an in-between state. It’s still a machine but one that’s seemingly coming to life.”

ElliQ doesn’t look human, but under her smooth, shiny surface, she has a lot of human-like qualities. If you walk into a room, she might “look at you,” or pivot towards you and light up. If you touch her, she will respond. Skuler calls these “non-verbal communication cues,” or “backchannels,” and they’re part of what differentiates her from other robots.

Unlike digital assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, digital companion ElliQ is an active robot, meaning she spontaneously interacts and learns. Her “persona” starts off shy, becoming more confident as she responds to stimuli and anticipates needs, eventually coming up with ideas of her own. She can remind a user to take their medication at certain times (which can be programmed with a simple voice command), but also make helpful suggestions.

“She’ll just wake up and say, ‘Hi! It feels kind of quiet at home, do you want to listen to an opera together?’” notes Skuler. “Or she might say, “Hey, did you know a giraffe is the only animal that can lick its own ear?’ That might cause you to smile or cause you to stop and think for a while, which is good cognitive exercise.”

ElliQ is easy to use since older adults don’t need to remember any commands to operate the system. Most interestingly, this kind of adaptability, not unlike our own, inspires empathy in the user.

It’s still a machine, but one that’s seemingly coming to life.

“When a machine is proactive and suggests things to us, it might actually make mistakes quite often,” Skuler says. “What we find is if it has a compelling persona and asks for forgiveness with body language—looking down, her lights becoming softer—then people’s empathy kicks in.”

Some interesting early feedback Skuler got from early users is how proud they are when ElliQ succeeds in areas where she previously failed. “She’ll get something wrong and she’ll say, ‘Oh I’m so sorry!’ and bow towards the floor, softening her lights,” Skuler says. “She’ll say, ‘I’m still new. I’m learning to get better.’”

On the other hand, when she gets something right, users are delighted by her progress. “They’ll say, “I’m so proud of ElliQ! She learned something new!” Skuler explains. “And they’re’ really excited by that.”

The future of digital companions

ElliQ companion robot playing jazz music

Skuler has high hopes for ElliQ. He wants users to have pleasant interactions but emphasizes robots are tools, not replacements for friends or family. So far, the technology simply isn’t there yet to create a fully-functioning companion that substitutes as a real person.

In the meantime, robot designers have to carefully toe the line between friend and machine to help human owners manage expectations. We want to feel less lonely, more cared for and loved. ElliQ can bridge some gaps, fill silences, keep older adults entertained and encourage them to reach out and connect with loved ones, but she wasn’t designed to fulfill the complex, emotional need for human connection. In robotics, that’s still considered risky business. The best we’ve got is a bittersweet compromise, which, much like the “objectoids” in question, feels disarmingly clever yet cooly practical.

All images provided by Intuition Robotics.


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