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Lonely and Isolated? New Tech Could Help

Two of the starring products at the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit


Part of the Aging and Innovation Special Report

If an elderly person can’t drive, he or she may feel lonely and isolated. Sometimes a pet can help lift spirits, but sometimes a pet is too much work. It wouldn’t be quite fair to say “there’s an app for that,” but technology is working on a solution: Robotic companions.

Two of the biggest hits at the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, a conference held in Berkeley, Calif., in July, were ElliQ, a slick new rival to Siri and Alexa aimed at providing older users with a virtual friend of sorts, and Hasbro’s Joy for All robotic cats and dogs.

To be sure, ElliQ (described in this Next Avenue article) is not yet on the market, and the Hasbro pets (described in this Next Avenue article) — while adorable — didn’t seem all that different from past dolls that will talk and go for a walk (to paraphrase Meredith Willson’s 1951 Christmas carol). And no one suggested that real live human companionship was on the way out, or could adequately be replaced by machines.

Seeking a ‘High Social Impact’

Instead, the problem these technologists are trying to solve is loneliness and isolation.

Dor Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics, the Israeli company behind ElliQ, said he and his two co-founders are all in their 40s, with aging parents. “We were looking to impact their lives,” he said. “We asked the experts, ‘What’s the largest underserved problem?’ It was loneliness and isolation. And the root cause was the digital divide.”

The company opened an office in Los Altos, in Silicon Valley, two months ago, and has assembled a dream team to put ElliQ together, from renowned designer Yves Behar to famed user experience architect Don Norman. Intuition Robotics is working with what it says are leading academic experts in the fields of cognitive computing, human-robot interaction, machine intelligence and robotics.

A video that Skuler showed, also available online, featured the elegant ElliQ­ — decidedly non-humanoid in shape, but instead built with design inspiration from the animated lamp in Pixar’s logo. The gadget sits on a table next to an iPad-like device and speaks with a female voice, much like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Only instead of waiting for the user to start the interaction, ElliQ will take note of activity around the house, saying things like, “It’s a beautiful day. Would you like to go for a walk?”

It also aims to simplify communication between the generations. An older person may not be comfortable texting, even though that’s the preferred medium for a teen. ElliQ will receive texts and read them out loud, letting the recipient dictate a response. “ElliQ will look at a picture with you,” Skuler said. If someone texts a photo, ElliQ might say, “It looks like they went skiing!”

At the moment, Intuition is still testing ElliQ, and people can sign up to test it. Skuler said the first round of tests are to see if people will use it, and if older people understand it. “It has all kinds of cues and gestures. Do they have the right effect?” Skuler said.

But the next level will be to see if it can have an impact on people’s behavior. Skuler sees the company as a “worthy endeavor” that could have a “high social impact.” It also could be a huge moneymaker if he gets this right: “At the end of the day, 70 percent of disposable income sits with people age 55 and older,” he said. “If we build a delightful, beautiful product,” it should sell like, say, iPhones.

Investors apparently think so too. Intuition last month announced a $14 million Series A Round led by the Toyota Research Institute.

Cuddly Robotic Cats

A robot like ElliQ, coming from a startup and powered by artificial intelligence and speech recognition, almost seems inevitable. Less obvious is an old-world toy company like Hasbro stepping into the longevity market with animatronic cats that purr and dogs that yap.

Ted Fischer, Hasbro vice president of business development, said he was looking for ways “to leverage Hasbro’s assets into new channels.” Those assets include “decades of animatronics and robotics expertise.”

When they put chips and sensors into their stuffed cats, they saw online reviews indicating the product appealed not only to children, but also to older people. People bought them for elderly relatives who felt, yes, isolated and lonely. “They make you feel not alone,” Fischer said. “You’re soothed and happy.”

The cats are particularly lifelike; Hasbro built in a degree of randomness, echoing feline unpredictability. They purr; they roll over; they respond to touch and light. The dogs are a little less lifelike, but will also respond to touch and sound. The cats sell for $99, the dogs, which have slightly more technology, for $119.

“When I originally saw this yesterday, I was skeptical,” said Valissa Smith of SeniorVu, a platform for SoftVu, a firm that provides software to the mortgage lending industry. “I couldn’t tell from the video how interactive it was.”

Once she had a chance to hold the cat, she became a believer. “For folks with Alzheimer’s or dementia, this is brilliant,” she said. “My father-in-law died of Alzheimer’s disease. He talked a lot about his dog. He would have responded well to this. It really intrigues me. There is a place for something like this.”

Dan Fost
By Dan Fost
Dan Fost is a freelance writer, former technology columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and author of the baseball books, "Giants Past and Present" and "Giants Baseball Experience." He is a former contributing editor for American Demographics magazine.

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