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Companion robot for the elderly debuts in London, but will seniors get it?

Let’s start by admitting that a robotic presence in the home, programmed to remind an older person when to take her medications and when to go for a walk, will not be everyone’s cup of tea. One man’s friendly reminder is another man’s nag. Nevertheless, an Israeli company that specialises in artificial intelligence, along with famed Swiss designer Yves Béhar, believes there is a market for their robot, called ELLiQ. The device was unveiled by Intuition Robotics in London this week at the Design Museum, and it is being marketed as an alternative to the many other robotic assistants already on the market, like Apple’s Siri and the Amazon Echo.

A key difference between ELLiQ and the others is that it has been designed for companionship, not just for convenience, targeting seniors. The product has the tagline, “The gizmo that gets you,” which, to an older person, might actually sound a bit threatening. Designer Béhar is frank about the “dystopian” notion of having robots for companions. However, he and the people at Intuition Robotics think that they have developed something that “feels natural” and will allow a unique bond to develop between the device and its owner.

Making no attempt to look like a mechanical person, ELLiQ is unobtrusive.

With more and more seniors finding themselves living alone and feeling isolated, ELLiQ could provide a bridge between them and society, encouraging a more active lifestyle. Intuition Robotics says that ELLiQ is “accessible and intuitive,” making it easy for those seniors who are not technologically sophisticated to use it.

Despite the user friendly operation, ELLiQ makes no attempt to look like a little mechanical person. The lamp-like device sits on a tabletop next to a display screen. The “head” swivels and turns as a person communicates with it, but it has no “face.” It is the voice that matters, and the voice makes suggestions about various activities the master may want to participate in—listening to music, playing a game, hearing an audiobook, getting up and moving after prolonged sitting. ELLiQ is also voice controlled, and, the manufacturer says, it will be capable of learning its master’s habits and preferences over time, enabling it to make unprompted suggestions. It will thus be both proactive and reactive, rather like an actual person.

It is not meant to be a substitute for human interaction, but a prompt for more such interaction, notes a user-experience advisor to Intuition Robotics. Don Norman of the University of San Diego, who is himself eighty-one years old, says the device will be refined after trials with older adults in San Francisco. Ease of use is the biggest challenge for designers, given that many end users will be in failing physical or cognitive health.

How likely is an AI companion device that targets the elderly to be successful in the marketplace? For comparison, consider Amazon Echo. It is estimated that Echo has been installed in between 1.6 million and 3 million homes, according to Business Insider. This means it is still in the early-adapter phase of its lifecycle, a niche market, not yet having crossed over into the mass market. Barriers to that move include high prices, limited demand, long replacement cycles—people wait until the device fails before replacing it—and, most important of all, the technological fragmentation of the smart home market. Consumers, says BI, need multiple networking devices, apps and more to build and run a smart home. Interoperability problems make it “confusing” for the consumer.

It should be remembered that the target consumer in question is not the senior, but the supposedly “tech savvy” younger person who is open to all new things coming down the technology pipe. If they find the technology confusing, how will seniors fare?

Who would buy the ELLiQ? Probably not the seniors themselves, who probably wouldn’t be aware of it. More likely it will be given by concerned relatives, but that is for the marketing people at Intuition Robotics to deal with. As is often the case, the video that demonstrates how helpful ELLiQ is features a woman who clearly does not need it.

Pricing has not been made available yet. Watch the video below.

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