The latest development making waves in the health care technology industry is an AI-enabled robot “companion” that could help alleviate loneliness. Before you scoff at the idea, you should know that a growing body of research on companion robots suggests they can reduce stress and loneliness and help older people remain healthy and active in their homes. While this is a promising development, there are some concerns about the lack of regulation with AI technologies, especially when used by a vulnerable community. Here’s what you need to know:

The Loneliness Epidemic

More than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The reasons are pretty straightforward: older adults are more likely to live alone, experience the loss of family or friends, and have risk factors such as chronic illness and hearing loss. 

In addition to being a miserable emotion to experience, a lack of social connectedness has a number of health risks. Recent studies cited by the CDC show that: 

    • Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes — a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
    • Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.
    • Having poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
    • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
    • Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 25% increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

The COVID pandemic exacerbated our loneliness and isolation, but the fact remains that American society is not designed to encourage or support high levels of social interaction, particularly among our aging population. This is where robots can help, say proponents of the technology.

The Studies

The most promising study to date has come from a collaboration of researchers from Auckland, Duke and Cornell universities. The report, which appeared in the July 12 issue of Science Robotics, proposes a way to measure whether a companion robot is helping someone (a standard that hasn’t existed up to now). The authors coined it the “Companion Robot Impact Scale,” or Co-Bot-1-7, which aims to establish the robot’s impact on physical health and loneliness. According to the study, companion machines might already be proving effective, helping to reduce stress and even promote minor wound healing. However, researchers warn that we need to create rules with AI technology to ensure the robots are moral and trustworthy.

As much as a moral robot defies common logic, the report further proposes some ethical considerations for governments, policymakers, technologists and clinicians, and “urges stakeholders to come together to rapidly develop guidelines for trust, agency, engagement and real-world efficacy.” (If you follow current events, you probably know that recommendations for official AI regulation are largely being sacrificed on the altar of profit. More info is here.)

Senior interacts with ElliQ in her kitchen
Currently, the most popular AI-empowered robot companion in the U.S. is called ElliQ. No bigger than a toaster, all it requires for setup is to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi. Source: Intuition Robotics

The Technology

Currently, the most popular AI-empowered robot companion in the U.S. is called ElliQ, marketed as “The sidekick for healthier, happier aging.” This tabletop robot is no bigger than a toaster, and all it requires for setup is to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi. (It also bears a miniature resemblance to the supercomputer from the movie A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought.”) Social robots like ElliQ have had thousands of interactions with human users already, such as providing company over a cup of coffee. Users have provided almost universally positive reviews, saying that ElliQ’s presence is a welcome one — even better than the companionship of a beloved pet, because the robot is capable of conversation.

However, the creators of ElliQ don’t intend the robot to replace human interaction. “We think ElliQ is a great solution, but there’s no doubt that human interaction, especially caring and empathetic human interaction, especially from a loved one, is the best,” said Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics, ElliQ’s maker. He went on to say, “The problem is, our loved ones aren’t always available, many of them are sandwiched between caring for their parents, caring for their children, caring for themselves and their career, and you end up with very, very significant gaps that could be hours, days or weeks long. We feel ElliQ is in a prime position to help fill those gaps.” 

P. Mulai Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University and one of the contributing researchers on the study, agrees. “Right now, all the evidence points to having a real friend as the best solution. But until society prioritizes social connectedness and eldercare, robots are a solution for the millions of isolated people who have no other solutions.”

Top image by halfpoint, via Canva.com.


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