How robots help older New Yorkers fight social isolation

Hundreds of older adults in New York will be getting a roommate under a new program to combat the social isolation that many of them experience. And the seniors won't have to worry about the roommate leaving dirty dishes in the sink or using all the toilet paper. 

That's because the roommate is a talking robot called ElliQ.

New York State Office for the Aging, or NYSOFA, will be providing more than 800 residents with ElliQ from Intuition Robotics

What is social isolation?

Social isolation can happen when someone lacks social contact and doesn't have many people, if any at all, to regularly interact with. 

"Everyone needs social connections to survive and thrive. But as people age, they often find themselves spending more time alone. Being alone may leave older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which can affect their health and well-being," according to the NIH National Institute on Aging. "Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks for health problems such as heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline."

Indeed, National Institute on Aging states that social isolation specifically can be bad for brain health — posing a higher risk for dementia, including and especially for Alzheimer's disease.

A few years ago, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, was so concerned about social isolation's impact on public health that he wrote a book about it. (And he researched and wrote the book before the pandemic.) 

OK, so what is ElliQ and what does it do?

Similar to digital assistants such as Alexa on an Amazon Echo and Siri on an Apple Homepod, ElliQ is a voice-operated gadget that interacts with a human user.

But here is how ElliQ is different. 

ElliQ was specifically designed to provide stimulation for, make small talk with, and encourage activity in seniors. The device does this by proactively speaking up and engaging with people. It reads messages and displays photos from approved senders (such as family, friends, and health care providers), offers to play interactive games, and streams guided workouts designed for older adults. It can also be set up to schedule transportation.

Israel-based Intuition Robotics calls ElliQ the world's first "proactive and empathetic care companion." ElliQ starts conversations with the user and uses AI to flesh out the context for future chats. It also projects empathy and builds trust with the user, the company claims. In other words, ElliQ tries to improve conversations and deepen the relationship by getting to know its person better. 

"Through acknowledgment, proactive engagement, and referencing previous conversations, ElliQ is more of a presence that accompanies seniors, opposed to just another device in the home," Intuition Robotics said in a statement.

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The ElliQ device. (Promotional Image Courtesy of Intuition Robotics)

ElliQ's Main Categories

ElliQ's features come under four categories: Entertainment and Companionship, Connection, Health and Wellness, and Assistance with Daily Living. 

Here are examples of what users can access through ElliQ: 

  • Physical exercise videos (Silver Sneakers partnership)
  • Health content (Mayo Clinic collaboration)
  • Transportation support (Uber Health)
  • Conversation and inspiration
  • Check-ins and notifications to a loved one (if needed)
  • Health and wellness goal setting and tracking
  • Reminders (events, appointments, etc.)
  • Text messaging
  • Video calling
  • Memory recording and sharing
  • Music, jokes, trivia, news
  • Photo display via built-in picture frame (with automatic updating)

In a news release, NYSOFA said users have an average of 20 interactions with ElliQ a day. 

"ElliQ is designed to foster independence and provide support for older adults through daily check-ins, assistance with wellness goals and physical activities, connection to family and friends, and more using voice commands and/or on-screen instructions," NYSOFA said.

How much does ElliQ cost?

Users cannot actually buy the device. Instead, ElliQ has a $250 setup fee (a.k.a. enrollment fee) and then a subscription fee of $40 a month (or $30 a month if paid annually). The setup fee includes shipping and handling, setup assistance, four wellness coaching sessions (more sessions cost extra), and some other stuff. 

So why can't you buy ElliQ outright?

"ElliQ is an incredibly expensive product to manufacture and assemble," Intuition Robotics states on its FAQ page. "Our subscription model allows us to offer ElliQ to as many older adults as possible at an affordable monthly price."

So if a user cancels the subscription, they will have to return the ElliQ to Intuition Robotics. (The device doesn't work without a subscription, anyway.)

What is New York's ElliQ budget?

The potential public health threats from social isolation — especially among seniors who live alone — is in part why New York state has budgeted $2.9 million in funding to bolster NYSOFA initiatives to combat social isolation with new and expanded technological programs. This includes $700,000 allocated for the ElliQ initiative.

"This product does so many things to improve health, combat isolation, and improve overall well-being and independence," NYSOFA Director Greg Olsen said in a statement. "Despite misconceptions and generalizations, older adults embrace new technology, especially when they see it is designed by older adults to meet their needs."

The NYSOFA innovation budget also includes $350,000 to expand a program that provides lifelike animatronic pets to older New Yorkers. (Stay tuned for more on this program…)

What do users have to say about it?

Intuition Robotics has compiled testimonials from several current ElliQ users. (Just keep in mind that these aren't independent reviews.)