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Generation Us: Artificial intelligence may help combat isolation

Generation Us: Artificial intelligence may help combat isolation

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Seniors and AI

Desktop robots like this one, called ElliQ, are being developed to act as companions and coaches for older adults who want to stay in their homes. Photo credit: IntuitionRobotics.com/ElliQ

When we complain, feel lonely or are going through a hard time, it’s often said that all we really need is someone to listen to us, not try to fix things for us. Something like “I hear what you’re saying” or “I support you 100 percent” will often work wonders, despite how robotic the supportive listener might feel the offering to be.

Well, then, what if an actual robot were offering this kind of emotional support? Could it be as effective as a human listener?

According to an Israeli research study completed last year, the answer is yes.

Study participants were asked to tell a personal story to a small desktop robot. Half the participants spoke to a robot that was unresponsive, while the other half spoke to a robot who responded with supportive comments and common gestures of understanding and sympathy, like nodding and turning to look the participant in the eye. Researchers found that people can develop attachments to responsive robots, and they have the same feelings and response behaviors they would have had if the listener had been human.

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics technology is creating all kinds of possibilities, and raising all kinds of questions, too. However, researchers are discovering that this new technology could most help most those who understand it the least: older adults.

“Technologies like Siri and Alexa already exist that can help provide a natural language interface to online resources and that don’t require keyboard skills or computer literacy,” said Richard Adler, a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, and a nationally recognized expert on the relationship between technology and aging. “As this kind of technology becomes more powerful, it will become easier to use and more helpful.”

In other words, Mom and Dad can interact with technology the same way they would with family and friends.

“There are also interesting experiments underway to use AI for predictive monitoring that can do things like detect changes in gait that could signal a greater risk of falling,” Adler said.

At Standford University, there’s a special Artificial Intelligence Assisted Care Research Program in which researchers are developing AI technology that can monitor seniors in their homes using multiple sensors to detect lifestyle patterns, physical movements, vital signs — even emotions — and then use that data to accurately access the senior’s health, safety and well-being.

Indeed, while AI technology is being developed that can help older adults directly, much of the research is being focused on providing support for caregivers, doctors and other health other care professionals. At the Stanford program, they are even working on an AI-powered ICU hospital unit that can monitor patients.

“I see AI helping doctors make better diagnoses, managing patients remotely and helping to coordinate caregiving teams that could include both doctors and family members,” Alder said.

And while AI like this is being developed to provide practical assistance, it is also being developed to provide human-like companion support as well, which can help reduce the isolation that often comes with living alone with limited mobility.

That’s the theory behind ElliQ (which takes its cue from the aforementioned Israeli research study), a new device that’s being called an “autonomous active-aging companion,” and which is currently being tested with older adults in San Francisco. ElliQ, which looks more like a friendly extension lamp than a humanoid robot, can speak and respond with a combination of movements, sounds and light displays to convey shyness, assertiveness, and even sympathy and understanding.

For example, ElliQ might prompt you to take a walk if it’s a nice day outside, either with a gentle reminder or something more forceful, depending on what it’s learned about its owner. Some family photos might arrive on the tablet screen beside the robot, and ElliQ might tilt its little abstract head and say “what a beautiful family you have.” ElliQ also can provide reminders about taking medications, upcoming doctor’s appointments and caregiving schedules with a human touch.

If all this sounds like scary, “Brave New World”-type stuff, well, it is.

While Alder said there are many benefits to using AI technology, like better connecting older adults with caregivers, family members and health professionals, and reducing senior isolation, he has a few warnings.

“I worry that AI and other media will be used to provide ‘pseudo-social interactions’ rather than actual human interactions,” he said, adding that there’s also a danger in taking agency and privacy away from older adults in the name of better, more intrusive monitoring by others. “My hope is that AI can be used to facilitate and orchestrate more and better human-to-human interactions. But the jury is still out on which way we’ll go.”

David McNair handles publicity, marketing, media relations and social media efforts for the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.

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