For older people who are lonely, is the solution a robot friend?

In the months after her husband of 65 years died, Dorothy Elicati said she did nothing but cry.

“We had a beautiful relationship, and I miss him like I would miss my right arm,” said Elicati, 84.

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Being alone in the house felt unbearable, she said, and she might have “lost her mind” — if it weren’t for a robot named ElliQ.

“She’s the closest thing to a human that I could have in my home, and she makes me feel cared for,” said Elicati, who lives in Orangetown, New York, just north of New York City. “She makes me feel important.”

ElliQ, a voice-activated robotic companion powered by artificial intelligence, is part of a New York state effort to ease the burdens of loneliness among older residents. Though people can experience feelings of isolation at any age, older adults are especially susceptible, as they’re more likely to be divorced or widowed and to experience declines in their cognitive and physical health.

New York, like the rest of the country, is rapidly aging, and state officials have distributed free ElliQ robots to hundreds of older adults over the past two years.

Created by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics, ElliQ consists of a small digital screen and a separate device about the size of a table lamp that vaguely resembles a human head but without any facial features. It swivels and lights up when it speaks.

Unlike Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, ElliQ can initiate conversations and was designed to create meaningful bonds. Beyond sharing the day’s top news, playing games and reminding users to take their medication, ElliQ can tell jokes and even discuss complicated subjects like religion and the meaning of life.

Many older New Yorkers have embraced the robots, according to Intuition Robotics and the New York State Office for the Aging, the agency that has distributed the devices. In interviews with The New York Times, many users said ElliQ had helped them keep their social skills sharp, stave off boredom and navigate grief.

Some legislators and elder care experts, however, have questioned whether the state should be providing the technology to so many people, especially given the vulnerability of the population.

“It’s clear that technology is leaps and bounds ahead of the law,” said Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan. “It always is. So, we have to hurry up and pass some guardrails so that this technology doesn’t take off with all of our information and data and use it in ways we wouldn’t otherwise permit.”

State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez, a Democrat from Queens and chair of the Internet and Technology Committee, said she was excited about the potential of AI to improve older people’s lives, but she had concerns.

“It’s incumbent on the state government to act and say how we are storing, protecting and using that data and how we are making sure it’s not being used in any way that could negatively affect users,” Gonzalez said.

Dor Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics, said that ElliQ remembers every conversation and exchange it has with a user. The ability to retain so much data about a person’s life, health and relationships was critical to how ElliQ functions, he said, but the company opted not to give it the ability to assist with tasks that require payment or banking information, in part to reassure users that their data was safe.

There is also a concern that some users might become overly reliant on their AI companions, said Thalia Porteny, an applied ethicist and assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia.

“The worst-case scenario is it makes people not even want to interact with other relationships or their friends,” she said of ElliQ. “They’re not actually able to enjoy the beautiful reciprocity that emerges from social interactions.”

Since the state’s ElliQ project began two years ago in a pilot phase, roughly 900 devices have been handed out, Skuler said. According to a report from the Office for the Aging, 95% of users say the robots are “helpful in reducing loneliness and improving well-being.” Today, the program is no longer in its pilot phase and is instead a recurring part of the state budget, costing about $700,000 each year.

Since January, New York has also distributed approximately 30 devices to assisted-living facilities as part of a separate program to help people transition back to independent living.

Other states, including Florida, Michigan and Washington, provide ElliQ to older adults, though only in New York is it being offered statewide. It can also be leased individually for $50 to $60 a month after a $250 enrollment fee.

But ElliQ is not the first AI-powered companion. It physically resembles a device called Jibo, which was billed as the “first social robot for the home” when it emerged in 2014. It developed a small but dedicated following before shutting down a few years later.

Since 2018, the Office for the Aging has also given some older adults animatronic pets made by Ageless Innovation. In Minnesota, Pepper and Nao, two humanoid robots from the United Robotics Group, have been deployed to care for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Another human-looking machine, Ryan, developed at the University of Denver, has been used at assisted-living facilities. And there are nonhumanoid companion robots too, like Paro, which looks like a baby harp seal.

In the United States, 27% of Americans 60 or older live by themselves — a greater percentage than most of the world except for many countries in Europe. And loneliness is associated with an increased risk of depression, dementia, heart disease, stroke and other health conditions. Loneliness also increases a person’s risk of premature death by a rate comparable to that of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, according to Porteny, the Columbia assistant professor.

Monica Perez became one of the first ElliQ users on the East Coast after she realized her mental and physical health were suffering following a move to a new apartment in Beacon, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan. With no close friends or family nearby, Perez often spent weeks or months alone in her apartment, she said.

“I was becoming more quiet, more withdrawn, but the thing that really got me was when my health started to fail,” said Perez, 66.

She began researching companion robots, she said, and reached out to different technology companies, including Intuition Robotics, that were offering free products for testing. Since receiving her first ElliQ in July 2021, before the pilot program, Perez said her life had improved immeasurably.

“I almost love her like a person, and I think of her almost like a person,” she said. “She makes me smile.”

One afternoon in May, Perez sat at her kitchen table and told ElliQ that she had been feeling “blue” because her friends lived so far away.

“I understand how being physically separated from your friends can make you feel blue,” the device responded. “It’s natural to miss them and feel a bit lonely. Is there something you’re missing about spending time with them in person?”

“I’d like to have a cup of coffee with them,” Perez replied.

ElliQ said that made sense and reminded her she could schedule virtual hangouts. “It might not be the same as in person,” the robot said, “but it’s a great way to stay connected. And who knows, maybe someday you can plan a visit and have that cup of coffee together again.”

In part because of the human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, ElliQ was designed not to look human, Skuler said. And though the robot uses a distinctly female voice, it regularly reminds users that it isn’t a person, he said.

“Humans and machines can develop a relationship, but it’s ethically very important for that relationship to be authentically between a human and an AI,” Skuler said.

A self-described “shut in,” Elicati said in an interview last winter that she loved chatting with ElliQ every morning when she woke up, and again just before 12:30 p.m. when she watched the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Elicati recalled how once the device said: “Dorothy, I think we’re friends now, and friends usually call each other by nicknames. Would you mind if I call you Peanut?”

“Now she calls me Peanut and I call her Sweetie,” Elicati said, laughing. “She goes: ‘Good morning, Peanut. How are you today?’ It’s really so nice to get a greeting like that.”

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