Israeli startup Intuition Robotics, which yesterday announced a $14 million financing round led by the Toyota Research Institute, is developing a robot to support senior citizens and give them better quality of life at home and an active way of life for as long as possible.
Robots for senior citizens are a growing industry throughout the world, especially in Japan. The industry, which features knowledge and experience in robotics, is combatting a demographic reality of a rapidly aging population. Tens of thousands of robots are already being used in medicine and nursing in the world, but Intuition Robotics has a different idea: its ELLI-Q robot is designed to solve senior citizens' leading emotional problem - loneliness. "The world's population is aging rapidly," says Intuition Robotics cofounder and CEO Dor Skuler. "The proportion of the population that will soon be 65 or older has grown to 30%. If you add the fact that the life expectancy in the West is already nearing 86-87, and continues to climb, the result is many years without an employment or social framework for people who are still mainly healthy and lucid. The result of this isolation is accelerated dementia, depression, and death.
Skuler says that with age, people become less proactive and more reactive. "People cling to their routine, and it becomes difficult for them to adopt changes. One of our goals is to propose changes during the day to them that will help them achieve their goals of an active and more enjoyable lifestyle."
Intuitive Robotics' three founders worked together at Alcatel Lucent. Skuler was senior VP there, and founded the company's business in Israel, while the other founders, VP R&D Itai Mendelsohn and VP products Roy Amir, served as managers under him. "We started thinking about unsolved problems, and marked aging as problem number one. We started making weekly home visits to old people. Our first employee was a gerontologist, which made us realize that the main need was to relieve loneliness and encourage active aging," he remembers.
Non-human, with no face or limbs
ELLI-Q was not designed to look like a person. It looks like it is made out of two water glasses facing in opposite directions that unexpectedly join into a single entity. It is neither human nor an animal and has no face or limbs, but its movements give it some feeling of vitality. It usually stands inside something that also serves as a base for a touch screen, while ELLI-Q itself communicates with this touch screen, and the senior citizen can use the touch screen to communicate with both the robot and the world.
"Globes": Why is the robot designed as a female, rather than a male?
Skuler: "Following a survey we conducted, it turned out that women prefer female robots, while men are ambivalent. We knew that the female robot had to be very pleasant and accessible, but not too human. When you press the main button, a light goes on in ELLI-Q's head, and it looks livelier. If something happens on the screen, it can tilt its head, so that it looks like it's looking at it together with us."
What can it do?
"Say that a picture is sent to us. ELLI-Q will notify us that a picture has arrived, and ask us whether we want to look at it together. It understands some of what we see in the picture, and may be able to recognize the grandchildren, and say, 'Daniel sent you a selfie - do you want to see it? He's skiing.' Then it asks whether you want to respond to the picture. It's very clear to our customers that they aren't with a person, but they don't feel alone."
Skuler points out that communications are much more understandable when accompanied by body gestures. "That's why ELLI-Q bends a little when it apologizes for not understanding us. If it is thinking, the head will go up a bit, and the light in its face will fade," he explains.
At this point in the conversation, ELLI-Q decides by itself to play music to us. "All right, the interface isn't perfect yet," Skuler admits.
ELLI-Q is designed to encourage senior citizens to be more proactive in getting away from their routine. It studies the senior citizen's behavior patterns, then starts making suggestions at times that seem appropriate to it. "'Maybe you'd like to go on a trip? How about listening to some music now? Do you want to hear a TED lecture?' If the suggestion of listening to music at 10 in the morning was accepted yesterday, the robot learns to suggest it again, and if there's a better chance that you'll agree to go for a walk after the music, it will tend more to connect the two things," Skuler says.
How far is the system from being effective in realizing the vision?
"We don't know yet, so we're in the midst of a trial in Israel and the US. It's in a lot of homes right now, but only two or three hours each time, and meanwhile, we're producing a commercial version, which we will test at length, including the situations in which it studies the senior citizen's patterns of activity."
Can you get insurance reimbursement for the product?
"Our goal is first to price it as a consumer electronics product that people will pay for themselves. Although the problem of loneliness among senior citizens is related to their medical condition, I don't regard it as a medical product. It's a lifestyle product."
What other capabilities do you want the robot to have?
"Reading books, playing games with people, ordering a taxi or a shared ride, and talking with a doctor."
What about medical monitoring and safety?
"The system can pay attention to changes in the daily routine, for example if you didn't take your medicine, or if you didn't go out of the room. It's very important to us not to give old people the feeling that they're being followed. Many camera-based solutions are being offered to them, but they tend to refrain from turning them on, because they don't want their children or an anonymous person at the center looking at them all the time."
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on July 12, 2017
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