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New AI improves companion robots with conversation, personalization

With AI advancements like ChatGPT, robots have the ability to form deeper connections with humans.
New AI improves companion robots with conversation, personalization
Posted at 7:50 PM, Apr 01, 2024

It seems like everything is getting smarter nowadays — thanks to AI. This includes something known as companion robots.

Scripps News has been following the health tech behind companion robots, which use AI to become personalized to the humans using them, since 2019. Now, with AI advancements like ChatGPT, these robots have the ability to form deeper connections with their humans. They are considered consumer, not medical, devices.

Late last year, we met Cheri Atkins, who got her father Melvin Antilla a companion robot named ElliQ. The device, a screen with an object like a "head" that swivels and lights ups when it hears its name, can have conversations, play music or trivia, deliver messages and have video calls with its user.

“He moved down here from north Minnesota to south Minnesota with the situation changing to living alone. But we noticed once he had ElliQ it was another person to kind of talk to him,” said Atkins at the time. “So it it really became kind of having that person that was with him to remind him to do things.”

Antilla is diabetic, so those reminders include checking his blood sugar and taking his medicine. The AI tech learns with each exchange with Melvin, personalizing and prompting its responses.

Scripps News' Lindsey Theis recently met with Assaf Gad, the VP of strategy of Intuition Robots, which makes ElliQ. The company has teams in Israel and in Silicon Valley.

SCRIPPS NEWS’ LINDSEY THEIS: How popular is ElliQ? Roughly how many homes is she in across the country?

ASSAF GAD: So we are talking about a few thousand homes already. A number of them are in states like New York and Florida. They’re subsidized by government departments focused on aging. 

The device comes with a $250 fee and monthly subscription of about $60.

“Florida, is where we have multiple. We have 21 counties that work with us where ElliQ is available at no cost at all,” said Gad.

This year, the tech company updated their software using large language models and generative AI like ChatGPT and DALL-E. Before the update, the robot would show Antilla flowers; with the update, a user can paint their own. It can also co-write poetry and have rich conversations. We watched as Gad had an in-depth 10-minute chat about love with ElliQ.

Researchers in the U.S. and New Zealand have also come up with a scale they say can measure the impact of the robot’s companionship with its human using questions to track diet and exercise or mood changes. The recently published their findings in The Journal of Aging Research and Lifestyle.

“So we basically took all comers to the study. But in the future we do need to do a randomized controlled trial where half the people get ElliQ and half the people get something else, and then we compare the results,” said Dr. Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of psychological medicine at the University of Auckland.

Doctors have been prescribing companion robots to fight loneliness. Last May, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory warning about the health impacts of social isolation and loneliness — including mental health challenges and increased risk for premature death. More than 1 in 3 older adults (37%) reported feeling a lack of companionship, according to a 2023 University of Michigan aging poll.

“It can really cause that wear and tear on our body,” said Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, geriatrician at the University of California San Francisco.

Kotwal has prescribed ElliQ and other devices like robot pets. He says robots should supplement human companionship — not substitute for it.

“We need to make sure that there are some guardrails so that what might be a Band-Aid solution doesn’t become a more permanent solution for some of these deep, more deeply rooted needs in our society,” said Kotwal.

Next, ElliQ researchers plan to study a scale that looks at the withdrawal when humans lose their companion robots. 

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