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New York State Is Planning To Deploy Robot Companions To The Homes Of The Elderly

by Victoria Marian Belmis / May 29, 2022 06:21 PM EDT

New York State is preparing to distribute robot companions to the homes of more than 800 older adults. The household robots aren't life-sized androids designed to help with physical tasks. Instead, they function as more proactive renditions of digital assistants like Siri or Alexa-engaging in small talk, helping contact loved ones, and keeping track of health goals like exercise and medication.

The project is being organized by the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA). It aims to help address the growing problem of social isolation among the elderly. 

Today, an estimated 14 million Americans over the age of 65 currently live by themselves, and this figure is projected to increase over the next decade as the boomer generation ages. Studies have indicated that long-term loneliness is as damaging to an individual's health as smoking.

The robots are named ElliQ and were built by the Israeli firm Intuition Robotics. Greg Olsen, NYSOFA's director, says the robots could help tackle the growing health problem by encouraging independence among older adults living alone and providing companionship.

"Many features attracted us to ElliQ - that it is a proactive tool, remembers the interactions with the individual, focuses on health and wellness, stress reduction, sleep, hydration, etc," Olsen said to The Verge. "It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and families and promotes overall good health and well being."

READ: A Digital Study Through Google's App Examines The Impact Of Phone On Mental Health

ElliQ is composed of two mechanisms attached to a single base. The first part, a lamp-like "face" with a microphone and speakers, lights up and swivels to face the people it's talking to. The second, a touchscreen tablet, can display pictures, show additional information, and conduct video calls. The unit has been deliberately designed to appear more robotic than humanoid, in order to emphasize attention on its conversational abilities.

Intuition Robotics also claims that ElliQ can project empathy and form bonds with users. The robot can supposedly remember key details about a user's life and shape its character to appeal to them. For example, it will crack more jokes if the user tends to laugh a lot.

READ: Google And Samsung Teamed Up To Help Users Sync Data Between Fitness Apps

Olsen explained that NYSOFA case managers will identify individuals who might benefit from ElliQ based on several criteria. "ElliQ is designed for people aged 75 and older, who have access to Wi-Fi, and are comfortable with tech equipment and who are isolated or lonely," he informs The Verge. "Once individuals are identified as being in the target group, Intuition Robotics will work to provide installation and training."

Assigning robots for elderly care has met mixed judgments. Advocates say robots are a necessary tool in the absence of humans, while critics warn machines pose the potential to dehumanize their users, their deployment reflecting the low value society places on older adults. 

Scientific studies have suggested social robots "appear to have the potential to improve the well-being of older adults," but researchers state it's difficult to draw conclusions without wider trials. 

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