• Smart Home Technology

New York State: Supporting the Elderly with Social Robots

William Hughes
Jun 28, 2022

Guidehouse Insights

The plight of loneliness for anyone is sad, but especially distressing for the elderly. They are more susceptible to the negative effects on health and often have fewer options to establish new connections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are aware of this reality and is working with other organizations to address this chronic issue. One of the promising solutions is a new category of robots called social robots whose primary purpose is to engage people at a personal level. Several companies have offerings in this area; Intuition Robotics offers a solution called ElliQ specifically designed to support the elderly. The New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) is partnering with Intuition Robots on a large-scale trial of 800 users to evaluate the efficacy of the ElliQ.

Why ElliQ May Succeed in the Empire State

The ElliQ robot seeks to engage its elderly human partner with a combination of capabilities. The device consists of a tablet, a base unit, and a module that allows a head-like appendage to respond in ways that seem empathetic. The programming of the device otherwise operates like talking to an intelligent agent such as Alexa or Siri. Besides streaming music, ElliQ reminds its partner to take their medicine and stand up and get mobile, encourages them to call family and friends, and tells the occasional joke.

Figure 1: Social Robots Seek to Engage Their Elderly Human Partners

Social Robots Seek to Engage Their Elderly Human Partners

(Source: Intuition Robots)

Lonely people often have connections but might convince themselves that calling would be intrusive. ElliQ gently but persistently encourages their partner to make that call along with participate in other healthy activities.

ElliQ Challenges

The average person served by NYSOFA is 83 years old, female, lives alone, and has four or more chronic conditions. Caseworkers currently engage with the individuals who will be assigned an ElliQ and will work with each individual to track health and feelings of loneliness and compare their experiences with the rest of NYSOFA’s clients. 

This initiative faces challenges. First, some percentage of participants likely will not connect with the head-like appendage that provides physical responses that emulate empathy. Although the robot appears non-threatening, some of the target audience may perceive its movements as a gimmick while others may find it chilling. There is a phenomenon called the uncanny valley that occurs when a robot seems so lifelike that the person becomes distracted looking for evidence of humanity. A typical younger normal adult would not mistake ElliQ for a human. This initiative with a large population of users will show whether this implementation hits the spot for the elderly because their ability to discern their environment has changed to at least some degree since they were younger. Second, as ElliQ gently encourages its human partner to do things that are somewhat uncomfortable, it is possible that the human will feel very comfortable telling ElliQ to stop annoying them if the encouragement is too much.

The Growth of Robots in the Home

Other than robotic vacuum cleaners and some related line extensions, home robots have not met the expectations of technology trends forecasters. The important developments associated with social robots offer the potential for consumers to achieve more rewarding interactions with technology. This topic is explored in more detail in the Guidehouse Insights Expanding the Market for Home Robots Beyond Smart Vacuums report.