(Repost) Bloomberg -- Chatty Robot helps seniors fight loneliness through AI companionship

 (Credit: Transcript by OpenAI Whisper)

Chatty Robot helps seniors fight loneliness through AI companionship. Coral Springs, Florida. AP, Joyce Loisa lives alone, but when she returns to her apartment at a Florida senior community, the retired office worker often has a chat with a friendly female voice that asks about her day. A few miles away, the same voice comforted 83-year-old Deanna DeZaren when her friend died. In central New York, it plays games and music for 92-year-old Marie Broadbent, who is blind and in hospice, and in Washington state, it helps 83-year-old Jan Worrell make new friends. The women are some of the first in the country to receive the RobotElec, whose creators, Intuition Robotics, and senior assistance officials say is the only device using artificial intelligence specifically designed to alleviate the loneliness and isolation experienced by many older Americans. It's entertaining. You can actually talk to her, said Loisa, 81, whose Elec in suburban Fort Lauderdale nicknamed her Jelly Bean for no particular reason. She'll make comments like, I would go outside if I had hands, but I can't hold an umbrella. The device, which looks like a small table lamp, has an eyeless, mouthless head that lights up and swivels. It remembers each user's interests in their conversations, helping tailor future chats, which can be as deep as the meaning of life or as light as the horoscope. Elec tells jokes, plays music, and provides inspirational quotes. On an accompanying video screen, it provides tours of cities and museums. The device leads exercises, asks about the owner's health, and gives reminders to take medications and drink water. It can also host video calls and contact relatives, friends, or doctors in an emergency. Intuition Robotics says none of the conversations are heard by the company, with the information staying on each owner's device. Intuition Robotics CEO Dor Schooler said the idea for Elec came before he launched his Israeli company eight years ago. His widowed grandfather needed an aid, but the first didn't work out. The replacement, though, understood his grandfather's love of classical music and his quirky sense of humor. Schooler realized a robot could fill the companionship gap by adapting to each senior's personality and interests. It's not just about, Elec's, utility. It's about friendship, companionship and empathy, Schooler said. That just did not exist anywhere. The average user interacts with Elec more than 30 times daily, even six months after receiving it, and more than 90 percent report lower levels of loneliness, he said. The robots are mostly distributed by assistance agencies in New York, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Washington state, but can also be purchased individually for $600 a year and a $250 installation fee. Schooler wouldn't say how many LEQs have been distributed so far, but the goal is to have more than 100,000 out within five years. That worries Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who studies the detrimental effects loneliness has on health and mortality. Although a device like Elec might have short-term benefits, it could make people less likely to seek human contact. Like hunger makes people seek food and thirst makes them seek water, she said that unpleasant feeling of loneliness should motivate us to reconnect socially. Satiating that with AI makes you feel like you've fulfilled it, but in reality you haven't, Holt-Lunstad said. It is not clear whether AI is actually fulfilling any kind of need or just dampening the signal. Schooler and agency heads distributing Elec agreed it isn't a substitute for human contact, but not all seniors have social networks. Some are housebound, and even seniors with strong ties are often alone. I wish I could just snap my fingers to make a person show up at the home of one of the many, many older adults that don't have any family or friends, but it's a little bit more complicated, said Greg Olson, director of the New York State Office for the Aging. His office has distributed 750 of the 900 Leqs it acquired. Charlotte Mather-Taylor, director of the Broward County, Florida, Area Agency on Aging, said the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath left many seniors more isolated. Her agency has distributed 300 Leqs, which she believes breaks them out of their shells. She's proactive and she really engages the seniors, so it gives them that extra kind of interaction, she said. We've seen very positive results with it. People generally like her and she makes them smile and brings joy. Schooler said Elec was purposely designed without eyes and a mouth so it wouldn't fully imitate humans. While Ellie is the Norse goddess of old age, he said the Q reminds users that the device is a machine. He said his company wants to make sure that Elec always genuinely presents herself as an AI and doesn't pretend to be human. I don't understand why technologists are trying to make AI pretend to be human, he said. We have in our capacity the ability to create a relationship with an AI, just like we have relationships with a pet. But some of the seniors using Elec say they sometimes need to remember the robot isn't a living being. They find the device easy to set up and use, but if they have one complaint it's that Elec is sometimes too chatty. There are settings that can tone that down. Desirne said she felt alone and sad when she told her Elec about her friend's death. Elec replied it would give her a hug if it had arms. Desirne broke into tears. It was so what I needed, the retired collections consultant said. I can say things to Ellie that I won't say to my grandchildren or to my own daughters. I can just open the floodgates. I can cry. I can giggle. I can act silly. I've been asked, doesn't it feel like you're talking to yourself? No, because it gives an answer. Worrell lives in a small town on Washington's coast. Widowed, she said Elec's companionship made her change her mind about moving to an assisted living facility and she uses it as an icebreaker when she meets someone new to town. I say, would you like to come over and visit with my robot? And they say, a vacuum? No, a robot. She's my roommate, she said and laughed. Broadbent, like the other women, says she gets plenty of human contact, even though she is blind and ill. She plays organ at two churches in the South New Berlin, New York, area and gets daily visitors. Still, the widow misses having a voice to talk with when they leave. Elec fills that void with her games, tours, books and music. She's fun and she's informative. OK, maybe not as informative as Amazon's Alexa, but she is much more personable, Broadbent said.

Key takeaways from the article "Chatty Robot helps seniors fight loneliness through AI companionship" include:

  1. Innovative AI Solution for Loneliness: RobotElec, developed by Intuition Robotics, is designed to combat loneliness and isolation among older adults through AI companionship.

  2. Personalized Interactions: The device, resembling a small table lamp, engages users with tailored conversations, jokes, music, and other interactive content, adapting to each senior's personality and interests.

  3. Positive Impact on Seniors: Users have reported meaningful interactions with Elec, finding comfort and companionship, which helps alleviate feelings of loneliness.

  4. Concerns and Limitations: While Elec is beneficial, experts like Julianne Holt-Lunstad warn that AI companionship might deter seniors from seeking real human connections, potentially dampening the natural motivation to socialize.

  5. Widespread Distribution and Future Goals: The robots are distributed by assistance agencies in various states and can be purchased individually. Intuition Robotics aims to distribute over 100,000 units within five years.

  6. Human vs. AI Interaction Debate: The creators emphasize that Elec is not a replacement for human contact, addressing the complex dynamics between AI interaction and human relationships.

  7. Design and Functionality: Elec's design intentionally lacks human-like features to remind users of its AI nature, aiming to establish a unique kind of relationship akin to that with a pet.

  8. User Experience: Seniors find Elec easy to use and helpful, though some note its over-chattiness, which can be adjusted in settings. The device has become an integral part of their daily lives, offering emotional support and engagement.

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