Ever found the increasing number of humanoid robots a little, well, creepy? You’re not alone. In fact, in 1970 professor Masahiro Mori coined a phrase for the unease we feel when a realistic robot elicits a negative reaction: the Uncanny Valley.
It’s a chasm into which hundreds of robots have fallen ever since. When Toshiba’s ChihiraAico was unveiled at 2015’s CES the media reaction said it all. The machine, designed to mimic a 32-year-old woman, was “the creepiest robot ever”, “scarily realistic” and “spooky”.
And that was the opinions of experience tech writers. The elderly are another matter altogether. A host of robots have recently emerged to address disability and illness. But ELLIQ, a new product from Israeli startup Intuition Robotics, concerns a far more common and rising problem: loneliness.
Social isolation “is a growing epidemic,” a New York Times editorial declared in December. Around a third of Americans aged over 65 live alone, and the number of Americans who say they’re lonely has leapt from 20% to 40% since the 1980s.
The medical effects of loneliness are severe: socially isolated people are less likely to sleep well; more likely to develop dementia, depression, stress, have strokes or even suffer heart disease. A 2015 psychology report deemed that these people had a 30% higher chance of dying within seven years.
As recently as two generations ago most families were born, lived and died among their relatives. Today in the US, adult children and their parents grow further apart on average 12 miles per year: addressing loneliness is a conundrum. The makers of ELLIQ think they’ve found the answer.
ELLIQ comprises a tablet screen and a small, bobble-headed assistant, which looks like two bell jars glommed together, that interacts with elderly users, the device and humans on the other end of communication. It has neither eyes nor a mouth–nor arms that waves or legs that pad about the home. It is, maker Dor Skuler stresses, a machine–though when he spoke to Red Herring the tech veteran slipped between pronouns, calling ELLIQ both ‘it’ and ‘her’.
“Robots are not people,” says Skuler. “We do not want to project that they’re people; we don’t want to create a false sense of something we don’t have the abilities to project.” Intuition Robotics enlisted renowned Swiss designer Yves Behar to create ELLIQ, whose mannerisms and movements ape those of a human, Skuler says, without falling into the Uncanny Valley.
“People first see a screen, which they’re used to because they have the connected screen where you can see pictures,” he says. “Then next to it is ELLIQ which comes alive, and through motion is extremely emotive, extremely expressive, and can help them meet their goals towards an active aging lifestyle–and actually share some experiences with them.”
ELLIQ might ask a user if he or she wants to listen to music, for example. Or it may liaise between family members sharing photos online. It can also prompt users to take medicine, go for a walk or play games. It is claimed that 90% of all communication is non-verbal. Skuler and co hope that will help ELLIQ bridge a digital divide between tech and the elderly.
“Older adults can adopt anything just like the rest of us,” he says. “They just need to put a lot more effort into it, and it requires a lot more effort to do so…When ELLIQ’s happy you sense she’s happy; when she makes a mistake she’ll be apologetic.”
Skuler thinks the term ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) is too frequently used in the tech world. Intuition Robotics, which is based in Tel Aviv and received a $6 million Series A funding round from OurCrowd-GCai and iRobot in February, is instead involved in ‘cognitive computing’, the founder argues, whereby ELLIQ analyzes the scene around it and makes decisions based on the goals its owner has input.
“Most startups that claim to do AI, what they really do is machine learning, which is the ability to do pano recognition,” he says. “If you teach a machine 10,000 pictures of what a car looks like, it will then recognize, if you give it a new picture, is it a car or not.” The “new frontier” of cognitive computing–to affect people’s behavior–is ideally suited to a goal such as ELLIQ’s, Skuler says.
It is also a key difference between robots in the western hemisphere and Japan, he argues, whose humanoid robots, like Pepper, Palro and ChihiraAico, have thrilled people while simultaneously freaking them out.
This target to build ersatz human beings comes not just from a Japanese focus on precision engineering, says Skuler, but a deeper cultural divide between east and west. “Whereas in the western hemisphere when we think of robots, we’re not sure what we think about it, and we’re conditioned by movies like Terminator and others to be afraid of robots to a certain extent, we’ve found that in Japanese culture they’re very open to that, they expect robots to be a part of our lives,” he says.
Getting the design right, and combining it with effective cognitive computing, has the potential to reap huge rewards. The global robotics market will hit a $135bn valuation by 2019. ELLIQ is scheduled for release in 2018 following testing in San Francisco and a move from prototypes to full-scale manufacturing.
But its goal goes beyond the financials. Loneliness is a real and growing problem. Addressing it could save us from a healthcare disaster. What we are trying to achieve is help people come together through enabling technology…” says Skuler, “and help older adults fulfill their own goals in aging, which is all about self-discovery, it’s about being engaged with what’s happening in the world, learning new things, being connected to the news, and helping them achieve their daily activities of taking medication, and going for walks, and doing things to achieve.
“But they need some help doing that.” It might seem counterintuitive to get that help from a bucket-headed machine. But it could be more effective than a humanoid assistant.