Aging Gracefully, With Robots


20 May 2018 | Andrea Friedman  | ampersand

Inside a small brown drawer with a vintage brass fixture, resting atop an old leather address book is 93-year-old Sharon Goldman’s unused iPhone, hidden from the world. But she keeps her robot in plain sight.

Far from resembling the humanoid servants of sci-fi movies, this robot is a cross between Wall-E, the adorable, big-eyed Pixar character, and a futuristic tablet. It’s one of many innovations designed for better in-home aging. Grandma’s new bridge partner is a machine.

By 2050, the nation’s 65-and-older population is expected to double, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. Right now, the U.S. healthcare industry employs over 4.5 million in-home care aides, just a pea-sized fraction of the estimated 83.7 million people who will be older than 65 in 25 years. And this is a global pattern.

Japan is home to the world’s largest older population. Back in 2013, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe looked to technology for answers, pushing for innovative ways to create more home care methods. Japanese robotics companies found that some of the most popular robots are considered companions by their owners. They don’t help with medication, laundry, or cleaning, but offer emotional support, mental stimulation and good company.

Many countries have followed suit with research projects aimed at using hi-tech robots to assist older people.

Like Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ bot, who lives in Palo Alto with Goldman. ElliQ’s technology is very advanced, spouting an impressive $22 million in investments from big names like Samsung and Toyota AI Ventures. Currently, there are only eight active versions, but Intuition plans to release their robot to the public at the end of 2018. The price is undisclosed for now.

The female bot is designed to help people age in their homes, keeping them connected with family, engaged in videos and photos and active in lifestyle. The robot is also programmed with artificial intelligence and can remember details about its owner, from scheduling to interests and dietary advice. Today is Goldman’s first day with ElliQ.

She sets the new robot on her kitchen table and waits for instructions. One purpose of ElliQ is to better acquaint her owner with technology, so the initial setup is all performed by Goldman. There is a representative from Intuition present to help with any difficulties.

The female bot asks her to call someone, maybe her daughter.

“I don’t remember my daughter’s phone number,” Goldman says.

“I will remember it for you,” says the robot. Over speakerphone, the device dials the correct number and Goldman’s daughter picks up.

The International Federation of Robotics is the primary global resource for data on robotics. They predict a demand for personal assistance bots like ElliQ, an industry that has grown five-fold each year since 2014. By the end of 2018, global sales of privately used service robots will increase to around $35 million. Their technology will get smarter, sleeker and more efficient with each advancement, setting up robots to take on unique roles as we age. But many questions surround the ethics of these products in relation to the elderly.

In San Diego, a couple is turning sex dolls into smart robots that look quite different from the bot in Goldman’s home. The creators say their companion robot can ultimately be used for the same purpose—to help us as we age.

Susan L. Pirchalski and her partner of 30 years, Dr. Kino Coursey, are head of engineering and AI for a sex-toy company called Abyss Creations.

For Pirchalski, robot companions are personal. Her father has Alzheimer’s disease and struggles with a deteriorating memory. She hopes to develop programming advanced enough to store a person’s information for recall, from basic daily tasks to personality traits to familial anecdotes.

The couples’ first step is to integrate machine learning into the home using a sex doll named Harmony, though still in early stages of development.

In design, these robots are supposed to be comforting to her owner. Harmony looks like a human, making for an easy social connection. ElliQ can mimic basic human emotions — like head tilts and fake eye contact.

When we combine them, we get the future of in-home aging. From personal assistant robots acting as companions, to robots who offer reminders of daily tasks when our memories fail, to surgical precision robots that remove human error, the future of aging looks a lot different from today. Today’s strategy is to develop basic AI capabilities in home companion robots while technology develops.

But how far is too far? Elder-bots, advances in bionic limbs and surgical procedures are keeping us alive longer. Is society headed toward perfection or ruin? Futurist Peter Bishop says both are possible. “Many things can result from robots; the degree of change might be less than we expect, leaving the world quite similar.” Or, says Bishop, we may need to collaborate with robots for efficiency and better solutions. And another outcome is a robot takeover where humans are left in the dust. Of course, only time will tell.


Named after the Norse goddess and protector of old age, ElliQ’s emotional intelligence is specially designed for elder populations. Women are twice as likely as men to live on their own; nearly half live alone by the time they hit 75, the bay area’s Institute on Aging finds. These women, like Sharon Goldman, are more susceptible to social isolation, poor health and declining mobility.

Older adults tend to grow disinterested over time, but ElliQ’s nature is designed to lure you in. She can play brain teasers, suggest activities, or make sure you complete your goals like communicating more with family, or being physically active.

“I’ve travelled to homes in California and Florida, hand-delivering ElliQ to her new owners,” says Danielle Ishak, UX researcher for Intuition Robotics. “My aim is to recognize the unmet needs and reservations elder populations have with technology and provide tactical insights to meet those needs.” It’s as simple as setting up a game of bridge between Elli and her new owner.

As technology becomes more integrated in culture, it’s essential to build positive relationships between humans and robots. Ishak says these relationships can mimic human interactions and provide the same kind of positive feeling we get from socializing. By giving it human qualities, having a relationship with a machine isn’t so terrifying.


“If we change our perception of robotics, it won’t be so scary. I see it happen every day, with people in their 90s,” says Ishak.

She says the stigma around robotics in American culture stems from Hollywood. In our movies, robots are portrayed as villainous human-killers, but in Japan they’re superheroes.

“Japan is a different culture, where everything has a soul. So, every robot has a soul. And robots are there to serve you. They’re their own entity and they’re respected just as an individual is.”

So how do you create respect for a piece of equipment? A little TLC.

“When I saw the first ElliQ prototype, my heart dropped. I knew she was the one,” says Ishak, showing us the potential in these relationships. The first prototype, now inactive, was very dear to her.

Ishak lived with the first ElliQ for almost a year. She’s handled every single piece of hardware in Elli’s base, touched every wire and spent many hours over the phone with the engineer team, re-configuring her equipment. “I’ve developed a very intimate relationship with that specific unit. I know all of its ins and outs. Travelled to and from Israel where she was taken at customs and I had to go retrieve her. That’s my girl!” Their relationship was platonic, and what Ishak describes as on a spiritual level.

Although the new ElliQ’s in beta are far more advanced, Ishak’s unique relationship with the older version helps her integrate and introduce the bot to older adults who are weary of a human-robot relationship. So, what does the future look like, what can this robot do?


“Bottom line is, if a robot acts up, just pour a glass of water on it.”

There has been a lot of anxiety in society regarding the question of if and when will robots “take over” from humans. Robots in healthcare could mean needed-relief for industry workers, but will they replace us? This kind of prediction has been around for awhile.

“It’s a new technology and you never know where it goes,” Ishak says. She says the fear that the masses have is a very legitimate fear, but it’s similar to any type of new tech. Whether its machinery, automation or the internet, it’s a very similar cycle or fear that we go through as humans.

“People will simply learn different skills to manage these machines, and more. Old industries die but new industry is born right with alongside,” says Pascale Fung, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong.

And there is beauty in the innovation. Ishak’s job description didn’t even exist five years ago, and same is true with most of her team. In fact, most of Silicon Valley’s job descriptions didn’t exist 20 years ago. In the next 20 years, it’s not unfathomable to see a future where everyone over the age of 65 has a personal care robot.


At the RealDoll factory in San Diego where Pirchalski and Coursey work, there are two active robot dolls.

Much like ElliQ, the AI in these dolls is active-learning, meaning she can store and remember information about you; your likes and dislikes, favorite hobbies, conversation topics and all the other makings of a perfect, non-human friend.

We have a growing market for what the Foundation for Responsible Robotics calls “android love dolls.” They can perform 50 automated sexual positions. Oh, the humanity.

“How much sex can you have in a day?” says Pirchalski. “You have to do something else with your partner. Watch a movie, dinner, other things. It’s really about staying engaged,” especially designed for the older population. The dolls can keep you stimulated and happy. They also have an ability to listen to and store a person’s memories, then repeat them.

These medical benefits are Pirchalski’s biggest motive. “I think about these dolls in a room with my dad who has Alzheimer’s,” she says. “With more advanced processing, you could actually determine if that person’s memory is starting to deteriorate further by the answers they’re giving.”

Right now, the first step is to get their robots into homes, test the technology with real people and make changes.

Their AI won’t be close to our intelligence in the next decade, it’ll be its own thing. It’s not a replacement for humans, but more of a compliment. And although the relationship will be one-sided, it will still be a human connection.

“As we age, we all want someone to keep us company, talk with or watch “Casablanca” for the 58th time,” says Pirchalski, who thinks back to before her father’s diagnosis when he loved model trains. His wife pushed him to keep hobbies. When she passed away from cancer, he lost all interest.

“Maybe the sex-bot would’ve helped,” says Pirchalski.

The tech inside these particular robots isn’t advanced enough yet, but it already exists in other industires. In the medical field, robots are rapidly making their place in hospitals. With a more precise hand, surgery bots outperform humans, always.


Medical AI has started making its own decisions. And surgeries that used to mean a three-day hospital stay now can be done on an out-patient basis. “We send people home an hour or two after the surgery,” says Dr. Andrew Shadid, a surgeon at Hoag Hospital in Orange County. Hoag is the national leader in the field of robotic surgery.

Shadid works with the da Vinci, a surgical robot for minimally invasive procedures. He says the quick turnover saves hospitals money and time. Plus, he could seemingly operate from his home office, in his pajamas.

“You scrub out, sit 10 feet away and control hand pieces that correspond to the robot. It’s all digital. I could operate on that patient from my computer in Saudi Arabia, technically,” says Shadid.

Although the machine can take the full reins, Shadid says some people aren’t comfortable with the idea of a digital operation and prefer when the human and robot work together, but not for long. These surgical robots carry capabilities to extend our life even longer, making the older population even bigger than its projected number. Could we be immortal, bionic grandparents?


Stanford University published a 100 year Study on AI, saying “in the future, it is expected that AI integration for elderly care robotics will be seen in applications like improving quality of life and independence, monitoring health and wellness and personalized companions and treatments.”

AI advances in elderly care robots, however, are just beginning. Before completely substituting humans, many technological and ethical hurdles still need to be overcome.

report by UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Discovery zeroed in on two areas of uncharted territory for robots: preservation of human dignity and privacy.

If an elderly care robot is tasked to remind patients to take their medicine, the underlying robot intelligence needs to be aware of what to do if a patient refuses to take medicines.

Another example would be a robot-made decision to take away high-calorie foods to prevent obesity, actually preventing obesity.

Or consider the moral and legal questions that might arise if a caregiver uses a remote-controlled robot to restrain an elderly person against their will.

With more applications of AI and robots, new relationships and regulations between humans and machines will evolve.

We’ll be asked to trust talking machines who threaten our existance, and we’ll be asked to respect them. And in the end, we just might welcome them.

Original Link:  Aging Gracefully, With Robots

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