Hundreds of elderly New Yorkers will receive robotic companions to help relieve their loneliness as part of a program from the State of New York.
Officials from the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) told technology news site The Verge Wednesday that the digital assistants, called ElliQ, and built by an Israeli robotics company called Intuition Robotics, will be distributed to more than 800 senior citizens across the state. The assistants function as a more advanced and proactive version of other home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Home device, providing users with reminders, initiating small talk, and helping them contact loved ones.
NYSOFA director Greg Olsen said that the program aims to relieve the growing problem of social isolation among the elderly by providing companionship and encouraging independence.
“Many features attracted us to ElliQ — that it is a proactive tool, remembers the interactions with the individual, focuses on health and wellness, stress reduction, sleep, hydration, etc,” Olsen told The Verge. “It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and families and promotes overall good health and well being.”
The ElliQ is comprised of two parts: the “face,” which is equipped with speakers and a microphone, which lights up and swivels in the direction of the person it is talking to, and a touchscreen tablet, which can conduct video calls and display pictures and information.
The Verge also reports that the device can also remember certain aspects of the user’s personality and details about their life, remember them, and use those details to make future conversations more personalized.
On the ElliQ website, the device is advertised as “a friendly presence in your daily life. Engaging you in conversation, motivating you to adopt healthier habits, surprising you with jokes and suggestions. Your personal sidekick on the journey to age independently.”
Typically, an ElliQ unit is hired for a $250 enrollment fee, and then purchasers are charged a $30 monthly service charge to maintain a subscription. NYSOFA told The Verge that they purchased the 800 devices used for the program outright, in order to “relocate them more easily”.
Olsen told the outlet that the devices will be distributed by case managers who will identify recipients by some predetermined criteria.
“ElliQ is designed for people aged 75 and older, who have access to Wi-Fi, and are comfortable with tech equipment and who are isolated or lonely,” he said. “Once individuals are identified as being in the target group, Intuition Robotics will work to provide installation and training.”
Social isolation is an increasing problem that has taken gotten significantly more attention in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Census Bureau data, via A Place for Mom, there are more than 14 million senior citizens living by themselves.
Another study cited by A Place for Mom found that 56% of senior citizens said they felt isolated in June 2020, more than double the number of seniors who felt that way in 2018. The outlet also noted that loneliness can have adverse effects on health by increasing unhealthy habits, the risk of cognitive decline, stress, instances of elder abuse, neglect, and financial damage, and making individuals more pessimistic about their health.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called social isolation a “global epidemic” in 2017, as the NYSOFA noted on its website.