AI Robots for the Elderly Mean Well, but Raise Ethical Issues

They're no substitute for human care

  • A new AI companion for the elderly is a lamp-shaped robot called ElliQ. 
  • The robot can provide comfort and monitor health, the manufacturer claims. 
  • Some experts are concerned that AI for the elderly raises privacy and ethical issues.
Senior man booking online appointment through mobile phone at Home

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Robots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly being used to supplement care for the elderly, but experts warn that they will never replace human companionship. 

Intuition Robotics has released ElliQ, billed as an AI companion for the elderly. The equipment comprises a tablet connected to a lamp-shaped robot, intended to help older adults in simple daily tasks and reduce loneliness.

"It is still vital to speak with and visit elderly loved ones," Sharona Hoffman, a professor of Law & Bioethics and Co-Director, Law-Medicine Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Social isolation is one of the greatest hazards for physical and mental health. Thus, technology should be a supplement rather than a substitute for in-person attention."

Robot Companions

Intuition Robotics said it spent six years developing ElliQ to make it more approachable for older adults who may not be tech-savvy. It’s intended to allow users to interact with it more naturally than other smart speakers like Alexa. 

ElliQ provides what the company calls daily conversation. While regular voice-controlled personal assistants are ambient and wait for a human command, ElliQ initiates conversations. ElliQ can also provide exercise videos on demand, give health tips, and seniors can also order transportation via Uber.

ElliQ's service comes with a series of wellness coach sessions, too, which helps older adults define their goals. It's intended to motivate seniors to take control of their physical, mental, and social health. In a recent pilot study, the company claims that ElliQ has shown to more than double the completion of activities supporting physical exercise, stress reduction, and better sleep.

"Over the course of the pandemic, we've seen the devastating effect that loneliness can have on the older adult population," said Dor Skuler, CEO & co-founder of Intuition Robotics, in a news release. "At the same time, we've seen ElliQ be incredibly helpful to our beta users and put a smile on their faces."

AI Steps in for Eldercare

Technology companies are developing many AI tools for eldercare, with safety as a critical goal.  CDC data suggests that approximately 36 million falls are reported every year among older adults, resulting in around 3 million emergency visits and more than 32,000 deaths. 

"These astounding figures highlight the importance of developing AI systems capable of detecting and preventing fall incidents among the elderly," Soheila Borhani, a physician and researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Lifewire in an email interview.

Two senior women looking excited while taking with an interactive voice assistant smart speaker

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Motion detectors can detect falls and send alerts if a person hasn't left the bathroom or bedroom after an unusually long period of time, Hoffman pointed out. Smart toilets can analyze urine to detect urinary tract infections, kidney disease, diabetes, how you're metabolizing your medications, and details about your diet, exercise, and even sleep. Watch-like devices can be worn on the dominant arm to track specific activities and send alerts if something seems wrong, such as the person is not eating or bathing.

But these AI-driven systems raise questions about privacy and consent, Hoffman said.  

"Technology can track individuals' most private activities and send others reports about them," Hoffman added. "Families may install these systems without obtaining agreement from the elderly person, especially if the individual is suffering from cognitive decline. Also, if the systems reach inaccurate conclusions, they might needlessly panic family members and the elderly person who is called or visited by frantic loved ones."

"... technology should be a supplement rather than a substitute for in-person attention."

The ElliQ system is designed to make users feel comfortable interacting with AI. The next step is combining artificial intelligence and advanced mechanics to create robots that can take the shape of a human or an animal and vary in size depending on their functions, David Chen of Orbbec, a company which makes 3D sensing and artificial intelligence vision technology for robots, told Lifewire via email.

"What developers have realized is that humans care very much about how robots make them feel," said Chen. "Despite knowing these machines are pieces of hardware programmed to complete a task, humans have an emotional response to robots. So the goal has been for developers to give the robots a form that humans feel comfortable engaging with."

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