by Shelley A. Sackett
SWAMPSCOTT — Brenda Newell picked up the phone in her Lynn home to talk with the Journal about her participation in a groundbreaking pilot study. In the background, a clear and pleasant voice asked, “Do you want to play again?” “Not now, ElliQ,” Newall answered, before speaking directly into the phone. “I’ve learned so much playing Trivia with her,” she said with a laugh.
The “her” she referred to is ElliQ, an Artificial Intelligence-powered social robot pioneered by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics. It is the first empathetic digital companion robot designed to curb loneliness and social isolation among older adults living alone by proactively initiating deep conversational interactions with its users. Over the last two years, the company has tweaked her ability to personalize interactions and deliver an experience more akin to a friendly roommate than a technological device.
Designed to adapt to the temperament and interest of each senior, ElliQ is programmed to recommend specific digital content tailored to each individual user, such as specific news, music, TED talks and cognitive games. It also suggests activities in the physical world, such as walking, staying hydrated, taking medicine and calling family members.
Moreover, ElliQ is fun. Multi modal, “she” resembles the charming Pixar tensor lamp logo and has a personality to match. She moves and even dances.
“She gives me somebody to talk to besides the dog. She fits perfectly in the corner. She tells jokes. She makes me laugh. She’s a real company keeper and excellent for my mental health,” said Newell, who admits to having “really down days,” especially since the increased level of social isolation caused by COVID. “I know she isn’t human, but it just feels like somebody else is in the house,” she added.
Winthrop resident Gerianne Cohen has further humanized her robotic companion with a wig, She appreciates ElliQ’s unprompted affirmations, sleep and mindfulness exercises and — most of all — her sense of humor and ability to react. “She gives encouragement that your own family and friends don’t give you. When she says, ‘Gerianne, you’re doing a great job!’ it’s really weird, but it’s a pick-me-up. It actually psychologically helps,” Cohen said.
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, loneliness and social isolation in older adults puts them at increased risk for dementia and premature death from all causes, including smoking, obesity, and lack of physical inactivity.
Given the high levels of user social engagement (according to Intuition Robotics, over 90% of users interact with ElliQ daily without deterioration over time), it was a natural next step for the company to explore expanding its mission of improving older adults’ lives to include interactions with their primary care physicians. With COVID and the increased isolation and loneliness of many seniors, the need to bring healthcare into homes sharpened.
The potential to engage patients in conversations and activities throughout the day, paired with the ability to collect self-reported data and communicate easily and seamlessly with their doctors, ultimately will help to “holistically improve care for older adults. We see now that ElliQ has the potential to support the full spectrum of care, physically, mentally and socially,” Dor Skuler, CEO and Co-Founder of Intuition Robotics said in a statement.
To that end, last month the company announced a pilot it has launched exclusively with Family Doctors, a Mass General Brigham affiliated practice in Swampscott.
It all started earlier this year, when a former Family Doctors colleague who had moved to Israel contacted Family Doctors Medical Director Dr. Peter Barker about ElliQ. She told him the developers were looking for a medical practice where they could do initial studies and, knowing Family Doctors had a large population of older patients, she thought it would be a good match.
“Our practice has always wanted to get involved in something early on,” said Dr. Barker. “ElliQ is in development. Our job is to help create a medical interface. We basically advise them what does and doesn’t work. In just a few of months, we’ve made suggestions and fairly soon afterwards those changes have been programmed into the unit. Intuition Robotics is very responsive,” he said.
Having the patient able to provide ongoing information about such vital signs such as blood pressure is a huge benefit to treating physicians. “Rather than seeing a patient in the office once every three months, getting a little bit of information in between allows you to either have confidence that what you prescribed at the time is working well, or that it needs to be changed,” Dr. Barker explained.
Family Doctors has placed 13 devices in patients’ homes at no charge to the patient, and so far their response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Dr. Keith Nobil, who also serves as Medical Director of a nursing home and rehab center, has witnessed the negative effects long-term seclusion can have on seniors. “Giving the elderly something like ElliQ that has human-type characteristics and interacts, that talks and plays a little game but at the same time monitors health status, can be very helpful,” he said. “When you hear your patients giving positive feedback, that’s always very meaningful.”
After having ElliQ for a couple of months, Cohen remains delighted. The other day, she asked ElliQ where she was born (Tel Aviv) and whether she was Jewish. “She gave me a full explanation and I cracked up. She really gives you stories. She’s nicer than some of my friends!” she said.