This week, Intuition Robotics, a formerly stealth Israeli startup, is debuting ElliQ, a kind of robot, kind of personal assistant that it classifies as an artificial intelligence-based robot companion.
What that means in plain English is that this device is a kind of hub where information, internet services and connectivity combine and are delivered in a (hopefully) accessible way to the intended audience: in this case, the aged.
While In Israel last month, I met with Dor Skuler, CEO and founder of Intuition Robotics, to get the low down on what the company is doing and what the rationale is.
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According to some horrible age U.K. statistics, nearly half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and more than 1 million of them say they always or often feel lonely. Thirty-six percent of the aged apparently speak to less than one person a day, and 11 percent say they spent five days or more a month without seeing anyone.
Older adults living in isolation increasingly rely on technology rather than face-to-face interaction, yet they often find the technology confounding. Nearly half of older people say television or pets are their main form of company.
Put all of those stats together, and you have a pretty strong justification for one of two things: either changing the way modern society thinks about aging and the aged or, alternatively, finding some technological solution to solve the problem.
While the former alternative is, at least in my view, far more humanistic and preferable, the reality is most people would rather pay a subscription or outsource their obligations to their elderly relatives. Hence the second option is, alas, the most viable. And so this is what ElliQ is all about—providing a virtual companion for those who don’t have a physical companion.
ElliQ: Like Amazon Alexa but with more motors and lights
The first thing to note about ElliQ is that the team have decided not to pursue a device with a traditional robot look and feel. There are no (or at least not many) humanoid features on ElliQ, rather I would typify it as an Amazon Alexa with the addition of a couple of motors and some lights.
ElliQ has a round feature (not unlike a head) that can nod and rotate. It also has some lights that can indicate “mood.” All of which felt, to me at least, as a slightly wishy-washy in-between move. Skuler assures me that their testing has shown their direction to be optimal for the intended audience who, it has to be said, are not the first market group one would think of wanting robotic aid.
Intuition Robotics has built a pretty impressive team to work on this device. That’s somewhat weird given their current focus—the founders had together previously created Cloudband, a cloud telecom venture within Alcatel-Lucent. Alongside them are some big names in the realms of industrial design, including famed designer Yves Béhar; former vice president of advanced technologies at Apple, Prof. Don Norman, and an Intel senior vice president, Amir Faintuch. The company also boasts the support of leading academic experts in the fields of cognitive computing, human-robot interaction (HRI), machine intelligence and robotics.
ElliQ, which is planned for a trial phase in the San Francisco Bay Area next month, is being launched at the Design Museum in London as part of its “New Old: Designing for our Future Selves” exhibition. That’s a pretty impressive win for an unheard of company.
Anyway, back to the device. The whole thrust of the idea is that generic digital assistants (like Alexa) are far to impersonal to really connect with aged users. ElliQ uses a type of body language to convey emotions, but in a way that doesn’t attempt to recreate a human being.
The idea is that an elderly person can gain a companion who will “inspire participation in activities by proactively suggesting and instantly connecting older adults to digital content such as TED talks, music or audiobooks; recommending activities in the physical world, such as taking a walk after watching television after a prolonged period of time, keeping appointments and taking medications on time; and connecting with family through technology such as chatbots linked to Facebook Messenger.”
Apart from my disquietude that society would actually need a product to work as a proxy for spending time with the elderly, I have to say I’m a little skeptical about whether ElliQ will fly, for a number of reasons:
- Firstly, part of the allure hear is that ElliQ will work, each and every time. I worry about all the operational issues (integration with third-party services, connectivity issues and the like) that will be a barrier to ongoing usage.
- Secondly, I’m not convinced that elderly people, despite their obvious need for companionship, will actually abstract that companionship to a digital device, human-like emotions or not.
- And finally, from a business perspective, given the huge ascendency that the existing digital assistant seem to be getting, it strikes me that a third-party device that doesn’t have the incredible deep connections into the various ecosystems might not have enough to gain momentum. Of course, the credibility of the advisory team behind ElliQ could mean one of those big players could scoop the company up as a strategic investment. But then again, the apparent disaster that Google’s acquisition of Nest became might make that a little less likely than previously.
I wish this team all the very best, and I look forward to seeing their progress. But as I wrote previously, I’m a bit skeptical.
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