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 robot pioneered by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics. It is the first empathetic digital companion designed to curb loneliness and social isolation among older adults living alone by proactively initiating deep conversation with its users. Over the last two years, the company has tweaked ElliQ’s 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 digital content, such as specific news, music, and cognitive games. It also suggests activities in the physical world, such as walking, staying hydrated, taking medicine, and calling family members.
“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.”
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.
Given the high levels of user social engagement (according to Intuition Robotics, over 90 percent 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.
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 cofounder of Intuition Robotics, said in a statement.
To that end, last month the company announced a pilot it has launched exclusively with Family Doctors in Swampscott.
It all started earlier this year, when a former 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.
“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 months, we’ve made suggestions and fairly soon afterwards those changes have been programmed into the unit.”
Having ongoing information about vital signs such as blood pressure transmitted by the robot is a huge benefit to 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 said.
Family Doctors has placed 13 devices in patients’ homes at no charge, 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.
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.