My Robot, My Friend

By Jasmyne Keimig

Set in the near future, the film Robot & Frank explores the relationship between an elderly ex-cat burglar, Frank, and a robot caretaker given to him by his son. Upon seeing Robot for the first time, Frank scoffs “You have got to be kidding me, I’m not this pathetic!” His reluctance to the idea of a robot helping take care of him fades however, when he figures out Robot can assist him in a jewelry heist. The film does a thoughtful job of flipping our belief that older adults are resistant to technology of any kind. In fact, the robot companion helps elder Frank come to grips with his health and realize things about himself.

Taking a leap from film to technology, artificial intelligence-based (AI) social companion robots are capable of making a positive impact on the lives of older adults — connecting them with their loved ones and helping them overcome feelings of loneliness that can come with aging at home. It’s one of the areas that Toyota Research Institute (TRI) and Toyota AI Ventures are both committed to exploring as part of our mission to improve the quality of human life.

The need is real, and growing quickly. The segment of older adults around the world is growing at an exponential rate. In the U.S. alone, the 65+ crowd is expected to double from 40 million in 2010 to around 84 million in 2050, making up a cool 20 percent of the population. In Japan, older adults are already one fifth of the population, and are expected to grow to 40 percent in 2060.

In the U.S., there are six million adults over the age of 65 who have a disability that prevents them from leaving the house without help, and the AARP Foundation estimates that 17 percent of people in the same age category are isolated. There’s a positive correlation between loneliness and depression in older adults, leading to an increased risk of death associated with a subjective sense of isolation.

These numbers aren’t abstract — they are us. Our friends, our families, our parents, our loved ones. Especially for those who desire to “age in place,” meaning, aging at home rather than a care facility, AI-based social companion technologies can be crucial in assisting us in our later years. They’ll help us connect with family, take our medication, and maybe even become our friends.

Though there is a perception of older adults being particularly averse to new technology, the truth is they aren’t. While there are significant barriers for older adults to get online (e.g. physical conditions, health issues, skepticism, class), once they do, internet and technology become an integral part of their lives. In a Pew study, of the older adults who are online, 71% go online everyday, or almost everyday.

Enter ELLI•Q.

Intuition Robotics’ active adult companion, ELLI•Q

ELLI•Q is the brainchild of Intuition Robotics, an Israeli startup and one of our first portfolio companies. We and the folks at Intuition Robotics are excited about the “cognitive computing” aspects of ELLI•Q. It differentiates by conversing with you instead of just responding to commands. Designed as an active aging companion, it makes suggestions — like going for a walk, watching a TED Talk, playing a game, keeping appointments — without needing human prompting.

Because of its wide array of technological services, ELLI•Q bridges the gap between older adults and the complexity of our digital world, while also serving as a day-to-day companion, connecting them to the outside world. It’s important to think of ELLI•Q as a tool in helping us getting older — not as a replacement for real human affection and care. Companion robots like ELLI•Q will be crucial to overcoming the digital divide and improving the quality of life of older adults.

As TRI’s CEO Gill Pratt pointed out in an interview at TechCrunch’s recent Robotics conference, we’re facing a demographic crisis, and robots have the potential to make a huge difference by not only assisting older adults with physical tasks, but also by performing “emotional” tasks. It’s one of the emerging technology areas we’re excited to explore at Toyota AI Ventures as we get closer to integrating groundbreaking technology into our everyday lives — which is pretty cool.

Check out Intuition Robotics’s website for more information about ELLI•Q.

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