Written by 11:00 pm AI, Discussions, Uncategorized

### AI Companion Robots: A Controversial Solution for Seniors’ Loneliness

There’s limited evidence for health benefits so far; early work suggests no one-size-fits-all…

With the assistance of an AI-driven companion robot named ElliQ, certain elderly individuals in New York are combatting feelings of isolation, while others have humorously referred to the “proactive” unit as a nuisance and even joked about taking drastic measures.

Through a specialized initiative facilitated by the state’s Office for the Aging (NYSOFA), seniors in New York have the opportunity to acquire the home assistant robot developed by the Israel-based company Intuition Robotics. Intuition Robotics and NYSOFA have collaborated extensively over the past year to introduce ElliQ to over 800 seniors grappling with loneliness. While authorities have distributed hundreds of these devices, a statement from last year indicated that only 150 units were currently available.

ElliQ has been enhanced with the addition of a pill dispenser and a light-based device resembling two pieces. The robot’s head swivels and illuminates towards the speaker, actively engaging them in conversations, inquiring about their well-being, reminding them to monitor their blood pressure or take their medication, and offering to virtually tour their home. This interactive feature is powered by “Mental AI technology,” enabling the robot to engage in human-like conversations, display emotions, share laughter, and provide access to healthcare services and educational resources such as audiobooks and cognitive activities.

Despite the increasing interest in utilizing social robots like ElliQ for elder care, there is still inconclusive evidence regarding their significant impact on health, well-being, and loneliness. While reviews conducted in 2018 suggested the potential benefits of such technologies, the studies were criticized for their lack of comprehensive design and statistical significance.

The program in New York has generated enthusiasm; however, it lacks a rigorous study design that could yield definitive outcomes. In August, the state released a report on an unspecified number of ElliQ users, demonstrating the tool’s efficacy. Notably, only 4% of users found the system “unhelpful,” with 37% reporting significant grief reduction. Initially, users engaged with ElliQ approximately 62 times per day for the first 15 weeks, which gradually decreased to 21 times daily between 60 and 90 days, and eventually settled at 33 interactions per day after 180 days.

Mixed Sentiments

Greg Olsen, the chairman of the New York State Office for the Aging, expressed during the report’s release, “We had high hopes for ElliQ’s performance, but the benefits we are witnessing are surpassing our expectations.” Feedback from event organizers and users statewide has been overwhelmingly positive, supported by the compelling data.

Nevertheless, recent research on the potential of companion robots to alleviate loneliness indicates that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be effective. People’s perceptions of such machines can be influenced by various factors. A qualitative study conducted in 2021 examined the opinions of 16 elderly individuals on three different types of robot companions, including ElliQ, yielding mixed results. While some found ElliQ’s conversational nature comforting on solitary days, others perceived it as intrusive and “nagging.” Specific concerns were raised about the robot’s assertiveness and tone of voice.

Some participants expressed apprehension about the potential impact of excessive reliance on technology for routine tasks, fearing it could accelerate cognitive and physical decline. Additionally, concerns were voiced about loss of autonomy, compromised dignity, and the artificiality of relationships with non-human entities. The assertive nature of ElliQ was viewed as overbearing by some, raising worries about user control. The potential stigma associated with interacting with a robotic companion was highlighted in a 2022 study, suggesting that such interactions could reinforce negative stereotypes related to aging.

While accounts from New York residents indicate the beneficial impact of these tools on certain individuals, researchers continue to explore the optimal utilization and design of AI-powered companion robots. Priscilla, a resident of New York, shared her positive experience with ElliQ, emphasizing its role in alleviating her feelings of depression.

“It keeps me entertained. I’m quite prone to feeling down. It’s always there. I don’t mind what time it is; I just need someone to converse with. I believe hearing a friendly voice when you’re feeling low is invaluable.”

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Last modified: February 4, 2024
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