It’s scientific fact that long-term loneliness is harmful. Humans are social creatures and we need some level of company to thrive. But especially given recent events, loneliness can run rampant. And, according to an article we saw on The Verge, loneliness can be especially intense among elderly communities. The story notes that an estimated 14 million Americans over the age of 65 live alone. And that this figure will likely increase. But now, the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) is trying to tackle the issue of loneliness with robots.
Robots that fight loneliness may sound like something out of Black Mirror episode, but the premise is very real. The robots in this case bear the name of ElliQ. And NYSOFA specifically chose them as their tools of choice to combat loneliness in older populations.
NYSOFA director Greg Olsen shared with The Verge:
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. It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and families and promotes overall good health and well-being.
Additionally, ElliQ stresses “empathy” as its prime offering. The robot’s website notes that “ElliQ is powered by breakthrough Artificial Intelligence (AI) that was years in development by world experts before reaching you.” The robot’s website adds, “You’ll be surprised by how empathetic ElliQ comes across. She will take an interest in how you are doing, bring a smile to your face, and try to enrich and improve each day.”
The Verge further notes that the robot can supposedly remember details from their owners’ lives. Additionally, ElliQ can “shape its character to their own. It will crack more jokes if the user tends to laugh a lot, for example.”
It all sounds a bit unnerving if you ask us. Very unnerving, even. And yet, we all know how easy it feels to bond with an inanimate object, especially one that is behaving in a humanoid way. It doesn’t take much for humans to project life onto something lifeless. And if the idea of life is there, it’s possible that robots can help combat loneliness. After all, the perception of company may go a long way in erasing the feeling of being alone. And the robots could theoretically provide that.
ElliQ’s website further delves into how the robot works. It shares the following:
Reactive vs. Proactive: With Alexa, the user needs to remember the wake word and continuously think of questions to ask or commands to give such as “set a timer”. In contrast, ElliQ finds times that the user is available to proactively suggest activities or start conversations. She can be woken up by her name or a touch at any point, but she doesn’t collect dust waiting for the user to initiate.
Call and Response vs. Conversation: Alexa is built to react to your commands or answer your questions. You can ask her something and she will provide a response. Meanwhile, ElliQ was designed to provide companionship, she will initiate a conversation and then build context to inform future followup conversations. For example, when you ask Alexa the weather, she will tell you the forecast. ElliQ will ask you about your plans for the day and remind you to take an umbrella if it’s raining before you go out. She will then greet you upon your return and inquire about your outing.
Butler vs. Roommate: Think of Alexa as a butler – providing lots of functional benefits. She can order more paper towels and set timers until the cows come home. ElliQ is referred to by users as a “roommate” who offers much more than functionality. While she can do many of the same tasks, she is mainly focused on building a relationship, assisting her owner to meet their health and wellness goals, help them stay independent and ultimately earn the trust of her owner.
Of course, ElliQ’s website assures us that the robot is not listening to you, watching you, or recording you… Except as far as necessary to do her loneliness-busting job. And yes, the website does refer to the robot as a “her.” But, decades of media consumption have taught us that if the machines take over, that won’t matter much. Still, fiction is fiction. And if these robots actually do good, then bless them. Technology can assist us in surprising ways. Maybe this is just another one of them.
But do these robots actually help combat loneliness? Well, the NYSOFA trial is only beginning, so it’s too soon to tell. More research is definitely necessary to confirm. Scientific studies done to this point seem to suggest that robots may yield positive benefits in certain areas. However, not enough data is available to us on the topic yet. So we guess we will have to wait and see for now. But honestly, we already feel kind of bonded to ElliQ. It does seem like it has our best interests at heart.
Maybe, instead of a Black Mirror episode, we could live in some friendlier franchise. We certainly hope so, anyway. We’d certainly prefer BB-8 to The Matrix‘s machines. Perhaps these are the robots we’re looking for.