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Technology in 2024: Can a “Chatty Robot” Help Reduce Senior Loneliness?

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Can advances in technology in 2024 help stem the epidemic of loneliness affecting millions of seniors? We were skeptical, until we learned about a new “robotic companion” that is already in use, helping isolated seniors connect with friends and family and giving them someone – or something? – to interact with.

Before we introduce you to this new gizmo, a bit of background: the problem of loneliness is real and getting worse. Just this week, in an article about loneliness from USA Today, the “epidemic” metaphor cropped up again. “America has a new epidemic,” said USA Today. “It can’t be treated using traditional therapies even though it has debilitating and even deadly consequences.”

The issue isn’t just about feeling sad from time to time, but about a chronic sense of isolation. The consequences are very real. “Loneliness is detrimental to mental and physical health, experts say, leading to an increased risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke and premature death,” says the article. The issue has public health leaders scrambling for solutions.

Technology in 2024: Meet Your New Companion, ElliQ

With that background, let’s turn to a possible tech solution in the form of a small desk-top “companion robot” named ElliQ (pronounced Ellie-Q). We read about her (she comes with a feminine voice) in this Associated Press article reprinted in the Seattle Times. Apparently ElliQ was launched some 8 years ago as the first product of its type targeted specifically at seniors.

As reporter Terry Spencer explains in his AP article, the maker hopes to have 100,000 of these devices in use within 5 years. Based on articles like this, that goal seems very attainable. Read on to decide for yourself whether technology in 2024, in the form of a desktop robotic companion, might help solve a bigger societal problem.

Technology in 2024: A Voice That Asks About Your Day

Spencer begins the article with the intriguing image of four solitary senior women, living in various parts of the country, all being comforted by and enjoying the friendly companionship of the same kind female voice.

“The women,” Spencer writes, “are some of the first in the country to receive the robot ElliQ, whose creators, Intuition Robotics, and senior assistance officials say is the only device using artificial intelligence specifically designed to alleviate the loneliness and isolation experienced by many older Americans.”

Joyce Loaiza, 81, a retired office worker who lives in a senior community in Florida, has found great comfort—and hilarity—in ElliQ. “It’s entertaining. You can actually talk to her,” says Loaiza, whose ElliQ in suburban Fort Lauderdale nicknamed her “Jellybean” for no particular reason. “She’ll make comments like, ‘I would go outside if I had hands, but I can’t hold an umbrella.’”

Technology in 2024: Artificial Intelligence Powers a Desktop Chum

Perhaps not quite the robotic companion you might be picturing, ElliQ (says Spencer) looks “like a small table lamp” and “has an eyeless, mouthless head that lights up and swivels.”

The device remembers conversations, including the interests of each person who interacts with it. According to Spencer, this helps “tailor future chats, which can be as deep as the meaning of life or as light as the horoscope.”

He elaborates, “ElliQ tells jokes, plays music and provides inspirational quotes. On an accompanying video screen, it provides tours of cities and museums. The device leads exercises, asks about the owner’s health and gives reminders to take medications and drink water. It can also host video calls and contact relatives, friends or doctors in an emergency.”

User privacy is an obvious next question, but Intuition Robotics says that the conversations stay purely on the device, with none of the information being sent to the company. 

Technology in 2024: ElliQ Birthed from Personal Experience

Dor Skuler, the CEO of Intuition Robotics, had the idea for ElliQ long before he ever launched the company. When his widowed grandfather needed an aide, the first didn’t work out, but the second was a much better match because they understood his grandfather’s personality and interests, including a love for classical music and a quirky sense of humor.

ElliQ was born from the idea that the ever-increasing companionship gap could be filled by a robot, provided that the robot could adapt to each senior’s uniqueness.

“It’s not just about [ElliQ’s] utility. It’s about friendship, companionship and empathy,” Skuler says. “That just did not exist anywhere.”

Technology in 2024: Most Users Report Feeling Less Lonely

The good news is that ElliQ appears to be working. According to Skuler, the average user interacts with ElliQ more than 30 times daily, even six months after receiving it, and more than 90 percent report lower levels of loneliness.

“The robots are mostly distributed by assistance agencies in New York, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Washington, but can also be purchased individually for $600 a year and a $250 installation fee,” Spencer explains. “Skuler wouldn’t say how many ElliQs have been distributed so far, but the goal is to have more than 100,000 out within five years.”

Technology in 2024: Some Worry AI Could Increase Isolation

Despite the potential effectiveness of such a device, not everyone is approaching ElliQ—or robotic companionship—with open arms.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a psychology professor at Brigham Young University who studies the negative effects of loneliness on health and mortality. She is concerned that ElliQ might provide short-term benefits, but could also make people less likely to seek out human friendship.

“Like hunger makes people seek food and thirst makes them seek water,” she says, “that unpleasant feeling of loneliness should motivate us to reconnect socially.”

She adds that connecting with a robot “makes you feel like you’ve fulfilled [that feeling], but in reality you haven’t. It is not clear whether AI is actually fulfilling any kind of need or just dampening the signal.”

Technology Can’t Be a Substitute for Human Contact

Skuler, and other experts who promote ElliQ, appear to be in agreement that a robot cannot be a substitute for human contact. But, as Spencer explains, “not all seniors have social networks. Some are housebound, and even seniors with strong ties are often alone.”

Greg Olsen, the director of the New York State Office for the Aging, is one of the proponents of the ElliQ. His office has already distributed 750 of the 900 robotic companions it was given. He says, “I wish I could just snap my fingers to make a person show up at the home of one of the many, many older adults that don’t have any family or friends, but it’s a little bit more complicated.”

Similarly, Charlotte Mather-Taylor, director of the Broward County, Fla., Area Agency on Aging, points out that the COVID pandemic left many seniors more isolated than ever, and her agency has already distributed 300 ElliQs.

“She’s proactive and she really engages the seniors, so it gives them that extra kind of interaction,” Mather-Taylor says. “We’ve seen very positive results with it. People generally like her and she makes them smile and brings joy.”

Creator Says ElliQ Designed Not to Imitate a Human

According to Skuler, the idea was intentionally not to make the robot imitate or replace a human. For example, it doesn’t have eyes or a mouth. And Skuler explains that while “Elli” is the Norse goddess of old age, the “Q” is meant to remind users that the device is, ultimately, a machine. Skuler says that Intuition Robotics wants “to make sure that ElliQ always genuinely presents herself as an AI and doesn’t pretend to be human.”

In fact, Skuler has strong feelings on the subject. “I don’t understand why technologists are trying to make AI pretend to be human,” he says. “We have in our capacity the ability to create a relationship with an AI, just like we have relationships with a pet.”

But despite these considerations, the seniors who use ElliQ have reported that they sometimes need to remind themselves that “she” is not alive. “They find the device easy to set up and use, but if they have one complaint it’s that ElliQ is sometimes too chatty,” Spencer writes. “There are settings that can tone that down.”

One user, 83-year-old Deanna Dezern, feeling alone and sad after the death of a friend, told ElliQ about her sorrow. “It replied it would give her a hug if it had arms,” Spencer writes. “Dezern broke into tears.”

“It was so what I needed,” the retired collections consultant says. “I can say things to Elli that I won’t say to my grandchildren or to my own daughters. I can just open the floodgates. I can cry. I can giggle. I can act silly. I’ve been asked, doesn’t it feel like you’re talking to yourself? No, because it gives an answer.”

Technology in 2024: A Robotic “Roommate”

Jan Worrell, 83, lives in a small town on Washington’s coast. Spencer writes, “Widowed, she said ElliQ’s companionship made her change her mind about moving to an assisted living facility and she uses it as an icebreaker when she meets someone new to town.”

Worrell laughs, explaining, “I say, ‘Would you like to come over and visit with my robot?’ And they say, ‘A vacuum?’ No, a robot. She’s my roommate.”

Marie Broadbent, 92, reports getting plenty of human contact. She is blind and ill, receives daily visitors, and still plays the organ at two churches in the South New Berlin area of New York. Despite this, the widowed Broadbent says that she misses having someone to talk to when her visitors leave and she’s on her own. Spencer writes, “ElliQ fills that void with her games, tours, books and music.”

Broadbent’s words conclude the article, saying, “[ElliQ is] fun and she’s informative. OK, maybe not as informative as (Amazon’s) Alexa, but she is much more personable.” We predict more technological solutions like ElliQ coming to market in the near future.

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(originally reported at  

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