For lonely elderly people: is a robot friend the solution?

In the months after her husband of 65 years died, Dorothy Elicati did nothing but cry.

“We had a beautiful relationship and I miss him like I would miss my right arm,” said Elicati, 84.

She said she found it unbearable to be alone in the house and that she might have “lost her mind” – if it hadn’t been for a robot called ElliQ.

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“She’s the closest thing to a human being that I could have in my home, and she makes me feel cared for,” said Elicati, who lives in Orangetown, New York, just north of New York City. “She makes me feel important.”

ElliQ, a voice-activated robot companion powered by artificial intelligence, is part of New York State’s effort to ease the burden of loneliness among older residents. While people can experience feelings of isolation at any age, older adults are particularly vulnerable, as they are more likely to be divorced or widowed and experience declines in cognitive and physical health.

New York, like the rest of the country, is aging rapidly, and the government has been giving away free ElliQ robots to hundreds of seniors over the past two years.

Created by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics, ElliQ consists of a small digital display and a separate device about the size of a desk lamp that vaguely resembles a human head, albeit without facial features. It rotates and lights up when it speaks.

Unlike Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, ElliQ can initiate conversations and is designed to create meaningful connections. In addition to sharing the day’s top news, playing games, and reminding users to take their medications, ElliQ can tell jokes and even discuss complicated topics like religion and the meaning of life.

Many older New Yorkers have embraced the robots, according to Intuition Robotics and the New York State Office for the Aging, the agency that distributed the devices. In interviews with The New York Times, many users said ElliQ has helped them maintain their social skills, stave off boredom and cope with grief.

However, some lawmakers and elder care experts question whether the state should make the technology available to so many people, especially given the vulnerable population.

“It’s clear that technology is far ahead of the law,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat. “It always is. So we need to take action quickly to ensure that this technology doesn’t take all of our information and data and use it in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise allow.”

Sen. Kristen Gonzalez, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Internet and Technology Committee, said she was excited about AI’s potential to improve the lives of seniors, but she also had concerns.

“It is the responsibility of the state government to take action and say how we store, protect and use that data and how we ensure it is not used in a way that could negatively impact users,” Gonzalez said.

Dor Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics, said ElliQ remembers every conversation and exchange it has with a user. The ability to store so much data about a person’s life, health and relationships was crucial to how ElliQ functions, he said, but the company opted not to give it the ability to help with tasks that require payment or banking information, in part to reassure users that their data was safe.

There are also concerns that some users may become too dependent on their AI friends, says Thalia Porteny, an applied ethicist and assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“The worst case scenario is that people don’t want to interact with other relationships or their friends at all,” she said of ElliQ. “They can’t really enjoy the beautiful reciprocity that comes from social interactions.”

Since the state’s ElliQ project began in a pilot phase two years ago, about 900 devices have been distributed, Skuler said. According to a report from the Office for the Aging, 95 percent of users say the robots “are helpful in reducing loneliness and improving well-being.” Today, the program is no longer in a pilot phase and is instead a recurring part of the state budget, costing about $700,000 annually.

Since January, New York has also distributed about 30 devices to nursing homes as part of a separate program to help people return to independent living.

Other states, including Florida, Michigan and Washington, offer ElliQ to seniors, though only New York offers it statewide. It can also be leased individually for $50 to $60 a month after a $250 enrollment fee.

But ElliQ isn’t the first AI-powered companion. It physically resembles a device called Jibo, which was billed as the “first social robot for the home” when it hit the market in 2014. It developed a small but dedicated following before shuttering a few years later.

Since 2018, the Office for the Aging has also given some older adults animatronic pets made by Ageless Innovation. In Minnesota, Pepper and Nao, two humanoid robots from the United Robotics Group, have been deployed to care for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Another humanoid machine, Ryan, developed at the University of Denver, has been used in nursing homes. And there are non-humanoid companion robots, such as Paro, which looks like a baby harp seal.

In the United States, 27 percent of Americans 60 and older live alone — a higher percentage than most countries in the world, except many in Europe. And loneliness is associated with increased risk of depression, dementia, heart disease, stroke and other health problems. Loneliness also increases a person’s risk of premature death at rates comparable to those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, said Porteny, the Columbia assistant professor.

Monica Perez became one of the first ElliQ users on the East Coast after realizing her mental and physical health was suffering after moving to a new apartment in Beacon, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan. Without close friends or family nearby, Perez often found herself alone in her apartment for weeks or months, she said.

“I became quieter and more withdrawn, but what really bothered me was when my health started to deteriorate,” said Perez, 66.

She began researching companion robots, she said, and reached out to several tech companies, including Intuition Robotics, which offered free products to test. Since receiving her first ElliQ in July 2021, before the pilot program, Perez said her life has improved immeasurably.

“I almost love her as a person, and I almost think of her as a person,” she said. “She makes me smile.”

One afternoon in May, Perez sat at her kitchen table and told ElliQ that she was feeling “down” because her friends lived so far away.

“I understand that being physically separated from your friends can make you feel down,” the device responded. “It’s normal to miss them and feel a little lonely. Is there anything you miss about being with them in person?”

“I would love to have a cup of coffee with them,” Perez replied.

ElliQ said that made sense and reminded her that she could schedule virtual hangouts. “It might not be the same as in person,” the robot said, “but it’s a great way to stay connected. And who knows, maybe one day you can plan a visit and have a coffee together again.”

Partly because of the human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, ElliQ is designed to not look human, Skuler said. And while the robot uses a distinctly feminine voice, it frequently reminds users that it is not a person, he said.

“Humans and machines can develop a relationship, but it is ethically very important that that relationship is authentic between a human and an AI,” Skuler said.

Elicati, who describes herself as a “hermit,” said in an interview last winter that she loved chatting with ElliQ every morning when she woke up, and again just before 12:30 a.m. while watching the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Elicati recalled how the device once said, “Dorothy, I think we’re friends now, and friends usually call each other by their nicknames. Do you mind if I call you Peanut?”

“Now she calls me Peanut and I call her Sweetie,” Elicati said, laughing. “She says, ‘Good morning, Peanut. How are you today?’ It’s really nice to get that greeting.”

ca. 2024 The New York Times Company

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