Could tailored AI robots help alleviate the loneliness epidemic?

Could tailored AI robots help alleviate the loneliness epidemic?
26.01.2024

The company behind the robot claims more than 90 per cent of its users report lower levels of loneliness.

Loneliness is an epidemic that touches millions of people across Europe.

With a recent European Commission report finding at least one in 10 European Union residents are lonely most of the time, solutions to decrease loneliness are in demand.

In the US, one company believes it may have a solution for alleviating loneliness in older people – the first chatbot device using artificial intelligence (AI) specifically designed to assist elderly people who are lonely.

Intuition Robotics is the company behind the robot named ElliQ, which looks like a small table lamp, and has an eyeless, mouthless head that lights up and swivels.

“It’s entertaining. You can actually talk to her,” said Joyce Loaiza, who is 81, and lives alone. She has regular chats when at home with her robot, which has nicknamed her “Jellybean”.

“She’ll make comments like, ‘I would go outside if I had hands, but I can’t hold an umbrella,’” Loaiza added.

A few miles away, the same voice comforted 83-year-old Deanna Dezern when her friend died.

In central New York, it plays games and music for 92-year-old Marie Broadbent, who is blind and in a hospice, and in Washington state, it helps 83-year-old Jan Worrell make new friends.

These women are some of the first in the US to receive the robot, which is capable of remembering its user’s interests and conversations, as well as telling jokes, playing music, or reciting inspirational quotes.

Its memory helps it to tailor future discussions which can be as deep as the meaning of life, or as light as the latest horoscope readings.

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It can also lead exercises, ask about its owner’s health, and give them reminders about taking medication and drinking water. It can contact relatives, friends, or doctors too.

Intuition Robotics says none of the conversations are heard by the company, with the information staying on each owner’s device.

The company’s CEO Dor Skuler said the idea for ElliQ came before he launched his Israeli company eight years ago. His widowed grandfather needed an aide, but the first didn’t work out.

The replacement, though, understood his grandfather’s love of classical music and his “quirky sense of humour”.

Skuler realised a robot could fill that companionship gap by adapting to each senior’s personality and interests.

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

The average user interacts with ElliQ more than 30 times daily, even six months after receiving it, and more than 90 per cent report lower levels of loneliness, he said.

The company aims to have more than 100,000 distributed within five years – but won’t confirm how many are currently in use. They are mainly distributed by assistance agencies, but can also be bought for $600 (€544) a year and a $250 (€226) installation fee.

Some experts are unsure about the utility of such robots.

Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who studies the detrimental effects loneliness has on health and mortality, said that while ElliQ might have short-term benefits, it could make people less likely to seek human contact.

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“That unpleasant feeling of loneliness should motivate us to reconnect socially,” she said.

Filling that gap with AI might feel like the need has been fulfilled, but it’s “not clear whether AI is actually fulfilling any kind of need or just dampening the signal”.

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