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Can a Robot Be a Good Companion for Your Older Loved One?

Even though Amazon and others are trying hard, some say there's no replacing people or pets

a human hand and a robot hand holding hands

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Retired bookkeeper Monica Perez is tempted to tell the Intuition Robotics ElliQ robot she’s beta testing, “I love you.”

“It greets me in the morning in a cheerful way. It uses my name frequently, so I feel very special to it,” says Perez, 63, who has epilepsy and severe arthritis and lives alone in a small Beacon, New York, studio apartment. Without prompting, ElliQ asks Perez if she’s gotten out, what she had for lunch, if she’s taken her medications or wants to hear a joke. While Perez is certainly aware that ElliQ is a machine with a tablet, cameras, motors, sensors and a head that bows and nods on top of a stationary base, she acknowledges a kind of “relationship” with the robot, which could pass for an extra on the Pixar movie lot.

“I don’t think she could take the place of people, and I don’t think she can take the place of pets,” Perez says. “I believe that she’s a good adjunct.”

Life’s daily challenges can be hard enough as people age in place. Confronting them becomes more taxing when loved ones, housekeepers and health care providers aren’t around to help with chores or keep a lonely person company.

Can a robot stand in for a caregiver or companion in the home? And if it can, is that a good thing?

“The answer to both questions is yes, although there is a caveat to what degree,” says Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot, best known for the popular Roomba robot vacuums that have been autonomously cleaning floors and carpets for nearly two decades.

Not living up to The Jetsons

Robots have long pushed beyond the realm of science fiction. Designed for a specific purpose, they can provide genuine utility in the home, as Roomba and its ilk have shown.

But even with technological leaps in machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision and facial recognition, domestic droids encounter numerous obstacles. No two homes are the same. Robots are extraordinarily costly. Fair or not, they haven’t met the expectations of folks fantasizing about employing The Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie.

Alas, no robot available today, or realistically anytime soon, is going to wash the dishes or fold your laundry. Nor can robots physically accomplish what caregivers can do, such as helping an older person get out of bed, bathe and dress, says Mike Dooley, chief executive of Labrador Systems in Los Angeles.

Connecticut officials initially declined to cover a robotic arm costing tens of thousands of dollars that could help Carissa Decelles of Willamantic open the fridge and pour herself a drink, WVIT-TV in West Hartford reported. Decelles, 30, has spinal muscular atrophy and is on Medicaid, but the state Department of Social Services called the Kinova Jaco robotic arm that she requested “unproven” and “experimental.” Bowing to pressure from media reports and her lawyer, the state reversed its decision.

Dooley’s own Labrador robot is in home trials but still under wraps.

“We are focusing on helping people move things where they have an impairment or pain restricting their own movement,” he says. “I think we’ve hit the nerve of an unmet need.” He describes his company's robot as being “big enough to do some decent lifting inside the home while being agile enough to work in tight spaces."

Amazon’s ‘Alexa on wheels’

amazon astro robot is shown in the room with a man sitting on a bed interacting with it

Courtesy Amazon

Amazon Astro

Home robots may get their own lift from Amazon. While the recently announced Amazon Astro (which carries the name of the Jetsons' dog) is no Rosie either, this not-quite 2-foot-tall “Alexa on wheels” brings the vision of a multipurpose household robot a tad closer to the mainstream, at least as mainstream as a product that costs $999.99 can possibly be.

The price will jump to $1,449.99 once Amazon’s introductory period ends. Because of limited quantities, would-be buyers have to request an invitation to get one.

“The fact that Amazon is doing [a robot] is great for us to explain this whole field and product category,” says Yaron Yoels, chief marketing officer of Temi, a robotics company based in Israel. His firm has mostly pivoted from selling its $3,999 toddler-sized rolling robot for people’s homes and is steering them into elder care facilities, hospitals, offices and retail outlets through U.S. partner Connected Living.

Security guard for your home

Amazon Astro is mainly tasked with home monitoring. It can autonomously patrol the house to provide a remote view of your surroundings through an app on your phone. It can move to a door or window if it detects the sound of breaking glass or an alarm for carbon monoxide or smoke.

And it leverages other Amazon products, notably Ring security cameras. Certain Astro features may require a Ring Protect Pro subscription, or a subscription to the Alexa Together 24/7 elder care service launching this year. Amazon has also begun selling the $249.99 Ring Always Home Cam, essentially a flying indoor security drone.

Astro can let you keep a watchful eye on an older parent or grandparent. For example, you might set up an Alexa “routine” so that every morning when Astro sees Dad, it sends you an alert. That way you know he’s up and around, says Charlie Tritschler, vice president of Amazon Devices. If your dad has hypertension or needs to take his meds, Astro can bring him his blood pressure monitor or pills at scheduled times. It schleps items in a cargo compartment.

The robot has a 10.1-inch high-definition touch screen that kind of doubles as a face and gives Astro a bit of a personality. As Astro follows people, they can engage in a video call with family or use the screen to watch Amazon Prime or Netflix. Astro is capable of all the same Alexa "skills" as an Echo smart speaker. It also has a camera that captures 5-megapixel still images and high-definition 720p video and a separate periscope camera that can capture 12-megapixel stills and 1080p high-definition video. The periscope can rise 3½ feet from the floor, tall enough to peer over most kitchen countertops.


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Cameras can be turned off

If you’re worried about privacy, Amazon says you can turn off Astro’s cameras, microphones, navigation and depth sensors. You can also define out-of-bounds zones to restrict where Astro can go. Do you honestly want Astro following you into the bathroom? Home monitoring is turned off by default, and Amazon employs encryption to protect data that’s in transit from Astro or the Astro app to the cloud.

When running low on power, the robot can autonomously navigate back to its charging station and juice up, similar to Roomba.

Amazon has a long history with industrial robots that perform repeatable tasks in the company’s warehouses. But “trying to do something in the home is way harder given there’s no such thing as the prototypical home [and] people move stuff around,” Tritschler says. Floors, carpets, walls, dust, lighting, pets and people all can get in the way. Household robots cannot climb stairs, though they can avoid tumbling down them.

For safety, Tritschler says, Astro is quiet but not too quiet. Since it is low to the ground, Astro by design will make some road noise so an older user especially will know that it’s coming.

Safety is also top of mind for Dooley at Labrador, “so a 5-year-old doesn’t take it for a joy ride.”

Robots as pets

While living, breathing pets can provide companionship to older adults, some people are allergic or physically, emotionally or financially unable to care for a biological animal. iRobot’s Angle says robot pets represent one of two great unsolved robot opportunities, the other being robots that can help with oil exploration.

“I believe the tools exist today to be able to execute a really quite wonderful and caring robot pet that can learn and grow with you and could play a productive and good role in helping people feel a little less alone in the world,” he says. But most of the robot pets he’s seen so far are too simplistic, too plasticky and not nurturing enough.

“We never set out to say, ‘Hey, let’s replace caregivers’ or ‘Let’s replace real pets.’ What we’ve heard over and over again … is that caregivers and loved ones, because of the companion pet, have a more meaningful interaction with an older adult.”

— Ted Fischer, Ageless Innovation

The promise of robot pets has been around for some time. The Paro “therapeutic robot” baby harp seal born in Japan in the 1990s is now classified as a biofeedback medical device that under certain circumstances can be reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid. Paro, which responds when stroked, is often used with dementia patients. But it costs more than $6,000 and has mostly been used in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Since 2015, Ageless Innovation has been selling cuddly Joy for All robot pups ($139.99) and cats ($124.99) that bark, purr, meow and respond to human touch.

“We never set out to say, ‘Hey, let’s replace caregivers’ or ‘Let’s replace real pets,’ ” says Chief Executive Ted Fischer, a former executive at Hasbro. “What we’ve heard over and over again … is that caregivers and loved ones, because of the companion pet, have a more meaningful interaction with an older adult.”

Human, tech support required

Maja J Matarić, director of the USC Robotics Research Lab at the University of Southern California, says some combination of human and technology support is required. “Socially assistive robots can encourage elderly users to sit less, be more socially engaged and be more physically active,” she says.

But Louise Hawkley, principal research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago, strikes a cautionary tone.

“I am generally dubious about the use of robots [and] robotic pets as companions,” she says, citing academic research that suggests older adults who are healthy find the idea insulting. “The word 'dehumanizing’ comes to mind. At the same time, it gives care providers and family members the illusion that their responsibilities for socializing with their older adults have been met by the robot.”

What comes next for robots?

the elliq robot is shown on a tabletop in its stand

Courtesy ElliQ

ElliQ 8

Robots will continue to evolve physically and in the way they interact with their human companions. Amazon is exploring emotion detection using computer vision to understand the mood of the people interacting with Astro. In the future, Astro may be more playful with a 5-year-old and more staid with his grandfather.

Meanwhile, with all the discussion around self-driving cars, keep an eye on Tesla. CEO Elon Musk showed video at a conference this past summer of a humanoid general-purpose robot that he said he expects will come out in prototype form next year. It will stand 5 feet, 8 inches tall, have a screen as a head and, Musk said, “make use of all the same tools we use in the car. … Can you talk to it and say, 'Please go to the store and get me the following groceries?’ I think we can do that.” But Musk volunteered that his Tesla Bot doesn’t work yet.

Dor Skuler, CEO and cofounder of Intuition Robotics, hasn't settled on a price for ElliQ yet. The company is "learning together with its early adopters about the value of the product," he says, adding that his team is always asking why people are willing to share so much of their life with ElliQ when they know she is not real.

"They see ElliQ as an entity. Not as a device and not as person, but something in between,” Skuler says. “And they’ll tell you, ‘We think ElliQ is taking an active interest in us. We think she’s trying to improve our day. We find her suggestions helpful and caring.’ … The fascinating aspect is the relationship that’s formed between the human and their digital companion.”

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other subjects. He previously worked for USA Today, Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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