New York is turning into Japan by giving robots to old people as companions

The pandemic placed a spotlight on America’s older population as the demographic most at risk of falling seriously sick or dying from COVID over the past two years. But compounding the risk of infection in adults over 65 is a trickier problem: loneliness.

Enter robots.

This week, the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) announced plans to distribute robot companions to over 800 older adults in the state. The office’s mission is to improve seniors’ access to nonmedical support services that maximize their ability to age in their communities while avoiding high levels or publicly financed care.

Over a quarter of adults age 60 and over live alone, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. As the large baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, that percentage is only going to grow, and with it the need for senior care services.

The idea of senior-assisting robots is nothing new. Japan, a country that has long felt the weight of its large elderly population, has been investing in the technology for decades.

There’s Paro, for example, a companion robot launched in 2004 and designed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. It looks like a baby harp seal and weighs about the same as a newborn. Using sensors that monitor light, temperature, sound, and touch, the robot can mold its behavior to user preferences and even learn to recognize often-repeated words.

The robots set to be distributed by NYSOFA can also respond to users and base behaviors on collected data. Called ElliQ, the robots work like other AI-based household devices that have become commonplace in recent years, like Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. It’s another countertop appliance with a focus on communication, just a bit more interactive.

ElliQ consists of two parts: an illuminated face that holds a microphone and speaker that can move to look at users, and a separate touchscreen tablet that can facilitate video communication.

Israeli technology company Intuition Robotics produces ElliQ and calls it a proactive, goal-based system. “The companion robot has spent over 30,000 days in older adults’ homes over the past two years, and on average each older adult completed 150 successful goal-oriented interactions with ElliQ per month,” said the company in a press release last year.

Intuition Robotics markets itself as a company that produces “empathetic digital companions.” Its mission is to establish long-term relationships between people and technology, with a focus on older adults.

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