Loneliness is a problem for many elderly people. Older people who are trying to cope with the loss of a spouse or long-time companion often struggle with health problems that are related to their solitude: the National Institutes of Health reports that studies have shown that isolation among senior citizens, and the resulting lack of regular social interaction, can lead to depression. cognitive decline, and heart disease.
The Washington Post reports that an Israeli company, Intuition Robotics, has now released a product that seeks to address that problem. ElliQ is an artificial intelligence device that looks vaguely like a lava lamp on a stand. It is designed to serve as a companion, rather than an assistant like Siri or Alexa. As the Post describes it, “ElliQ offers soothing encouragement, invitations to games, gentle health prodding, music thoughts and, most important, a friendly voice that learns a person’s ways and comforts them in their solitude.” The article includes this quote from a company representative:
“This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you,” said Dor Skuler, Intuition’s chief executive and co-founder. “People who use ElliQ expect her to remember conversations, they expect her to hold context … to deal with the hard times and celebrate the great times. These are the things I think we’re on the frontier of.”
is humanity on the verge of a future where lonely humans find comfort in interaction with machines? Some would argue that that future is already here, with computers serving as the anti-isolation device, and that our increasing acclimation to smartphones, other smart devices, computers, and other electronica has created fertile ground for acceptance of robot companions. It’s an interesting question. Many elderly people who aren’t house-bound could increase their interaction with other humans by joining clubs, or churches, or support groups. If they don’t do that, will they respond to a robot? Or is a device like ElliQ a little easier, and less threatening, than putting yourself out there in a conscious effort to make friends? Could ElliQ and similar devices have the effect of promoting less human contact?
We’ll have to see about that, but I will say that the Post article’s description of ElliQ’s conversational gambits makes the device seem like a bit of a nag. If I’ve got to have a robot companion one of these days, I’d rather have one like Bender from Futurama. I suspect that Bender’s raucous approach to life would be a lot more likely to get me out and about.