Not only has “social distancing” been necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus worldwide, but it has also given everyone a sample of the isolation that older people regularly experience. People “aging in place” without regular care are particularly vulnerable to the mental and physical effects of isolation. Intuition Robotics Ltd. has designed its ElliQ “digital companion” and the “Q” artificial intelligence engine to address this challenge.
“Hopefully, more and more of us will understand what older adults are going through on a regular basis,” said Dor Skuler, co-founder and CEO of Intuition Robotics. “While most people can use Zoom [for teleconferencing] or order food online, it’s harder for our parents or grandparents to do so.”
“There’s a real shortage of care workers, and a nurse can see someone for only a half-hour a week,” he told The Robot Report. “Up a third of the population is older, and a third is spent in isolation, which we know is like smoking 15 cigarettes per day in terms of health decline.”
Ramat Gan, Israel-based Intuition Robotics has been beta-testing ElliQ, which spent 10,000 days in the homes of older adults in the U.S. in the past year. “We’re testing in clusters where can provide support,” Skuler said. “We pick a city and send 20 to 30 units.”
Lockdown provides challenges and opportunities
Intuition Robotics was founded in 2016, and ElliQ is intended to help seniors stay mentally and physically active. Unlike other social robots, ElliQ was always designed with older adults in mind.
“We’ve been in lockdown in Israel, and I’ve been spending much of my days thinking about what will happen after the COVID-19 crisis,” said Skuler. “The isolation of older people has been going on for a long time, without enough action from governments or society. We’ve been focusing our attention on ElliQ’s users.”
“We have staff in Europe and Israel, suppliers out of China, and customers in Japan and the U.S.,” he said. “Everyone is dedicated and doing what they can from home. We just had a demonstration with some automakers, which shows creative ways of working from home. It’s harder for those with children, but it’s also hitting everyone at the same time.”
“While ElliQ doesn’t currently have a skill to order food, like smart speakers or smartphones, we’ve focused on harder things, like persistent relationships and interactions,” said Skuler. “As a team, COVID-19 has helped us understand where to add more utility, either directly or with partners. Providing more utility is not as hard to do as understanding human engagement and routines.”
“It would be great for healthcare providers to see elders and relevant data before they get sick,” he said. “Such devices are not yet covered by Medicaid or Medicare, but I hope policymakers will wake up and make elder care a priority.”
Initial results promising for ElliQ
Although ElliQ is not designed to be humanoid, Intuition Robotics found that the digital companion was effective in reducing loneliness. A majority of the test users were between 80 and 90 years old, and each of them spent at least 90 consecutive days with the intelligent device.
The tests found that older adults interacted with ElliQ an average of eight times per day, as the robot reminded them to take medications, exercise, and contact loved ones. It can also provide information, conduct conversations based on an individual’s preferences and habits, and play music.
“We found that acknowledgement shouldn’t be underestimated — someone or something taking an interest in you,” Skuler said. “Small things matter immensely for improving the quality of life, such asking the users if they slept well or what they had for lunch and referencing it later.”
“With my own kids, they are calling my parents every day, putting something like that consistently into a routine is important,” he added. “Even if there’s no big news to tell, people need to have something recurring but ever-changing to look forward to. With ElliQ, we’re adding data, news and information about the community, and who to contact — it reduces anxiety. We’re also developing content to relieve boredom.”
More recently, Intuition Robotics has made its Q cognitive AI, which powers ElliQ, available to third parties. Automakers have expressed interest as they search for ways to engage passengers in autonomous vehicles.
Robotics startups should expect struggles
Intuition Robotics raised $36 million in Series B funding in February 2020, and its supporters include SPARX Group, OurCrowd, Toyota AI Ventures, and iRobot Corp.
“We’re grateful to have raised capital just prior to the shutdowns,” Skuler said. “Our runway is now longer — certain plans will take longer to execute. A lot of Israel’s initial stimulus spending went to old sectors, even though 60% of GDP [gross domestic product] is in high-tech.”
“Clearly, the venture capital [VC] market is reacting in a similar way to the 2008 crisis, with extremely fast firings and layoffs within days of shelter-in-place orders,” Skuler observed. “VCs were waiting for a downturn after unprecedented growth and inflated valuations. Change would have eventually happened anyway, but now early-stage company creation is most affected.”
What does this mean for robotics and AI startups? “Any startup without funding for the next 24 months is going to struggle,” replied Skuler. “If they don’t have enough for the next 12 months, they’re really going to struggle.”
The global economic slowdown is forcing companies to focus on their core competencies, he added. “Larger companies will focus on survival, with innovation as an enabler to that and eventual expansion,” said Skuler. “At the same time, a lot of amazing talent has been released into the workforce, and there will be acquisition opportunities.”
ElliQ may lead next wave of human-machine interaction
“For consumer-based companies, it raises the questions of ‘What else can I do remotely?’ and ‘If it happens again, what would I do differently?’” Skuler noted. “Automation and social robots have a big opportunity to provide more value, as a personalized, empathetic interface makes more sense.”
“Anybody working in the fields of human-machine interaction or collaboration will hopefully get a bump, but not immediately,” he predicted. “Robotic taxis, delivering medicine, and hospitality — anywhere we can help older people who have trouble with technology — those are points to be developed.”
The company has opened its beta program to hundreds of additional users for free. For more information, visit the Intuition Robotics website.