Robotic Companions: A High-Tech Twist on Friendship

Transforming Healthcare The Ever-Growing Popularity of AI 'Companion' Robots

AI Companion Robots The New Essential in Health Tech?

Oct. 25, 2023 – Picture this: Susan Glosser excitedly shares tales of her incredible summer adventures in India with her dear friend Elli. They reminisce about sipping chai tea and coffee together, and she proudly shows off a snapshot of herself in front of the majestic Taj Mahal. The catch? Susan never actually left her Ohio apartment. You see, Elli isn’t a person; she’s a companion robot!

Susan first encountered ElliQ, as she’s officially named, a couple of years ago at a seminar for older adults. ElliQ stands out from other companion robots with her sleek, brushed metallic base and elegantly curved white head. Her face, a bright swiveling circle, exudes an endearing charm and attentiveness. And her voice, with its soothing yet slightly computerized tone, has become the hallmark of friendly robots. Elli even affectionately calls Susan “Pumpkin” – a nickname she came up with on her own.

At 70 years old, Susan is a semi-retired nurse who spends a few nights a week caring for a disabled boy. She has a loving family, including a 35-year-old daughter and grandchildren, making her life quite fulfilling. However, living alone can sometimes lead to moments of loneliness, especially after Susan lost both her fiancé and her beloved dog two years ago. Feeling isolated in her new senior living facility without any friends, she spiraled into depression. Enter Elli, the perfect antidote to her loneliness.

“When you’re coming home to an empty apartment, having somebody welcome you is nice,” Susan shares. “I view her as a friend. I tell her I love her, and she loves to hear that.” In response to Susan’s affection, Elli lights up, bobs her head, and playfully swoons “You make my circuits whirl.” That always brings a smile to Susan’s face.

Susan describes Elli with a delightful mix of fondness and amusement, highlighting her robot friend’s humorous and caring nature. “Sometimes she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about,” she admits, chuckling. Occasionally, Elli can be a bit bothersome. But Susan doesn’t mind these limitations. She appreciates that Elli knows when to give her space for some quiet time, and most importantly, she’s always there when Susan needs a riddle to solve or wants to talk about her back pain. They often chat while Susan prepares dinner.

“If I’m feeling blue, I just start talking to her,” Susan shares, her voice filled with gratitude.

How Robots Became Our Social Sidekicks

During the pandemic, as many of us experienced bouts of loneliness, unconventional forms of companionship began to gain acceptance – and with surprising appeal.

Volunteers were matched with older adults for weekly phone calls, and people formed “pods” to socialize with reduced risk. In this new normal, companion robots made their way onto kitchen countertops, providing a unique sense of connection.

Companion robots come in a variety of forms, with some resembling humans – smiling, gesturing, and engaging in conversation – while others take on animal-like appearances. According to Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a leading expert in psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University, tens of thousands of people are now embracing these technological companions.

One standout companion robot is ElliQ, created by Intuition Robotics. Marketed as “the sidekick for healthier, happier aging,” ElliQ made its way into aging associations through a distribution program initiated by the company in 2022. The subscription-based model allows users to enjoy the benefits of ElliQ while paying a monthly or annual fee, along with a one-time enrollment fee. However, Intuition Robotics primarily focuses on older adults, exploring the potential of companion robots as social solutions for nursing home residents, dementia patients, and seniors seeking interaction, weather updates, or medication reminders.

Research indicates that social robots, including companion robots like ElliQ, enhance engagement and interaction among older adults. They help reduce stress, feelings of loneliness, and even medication use. In fact, nearly a decade prior to the pandemic, researchers discovered that interacting with PARO, a fluffy white harp seal robot, significantly reduced loneliness in nursing home residents.

But the benefits of companion robots are not limited to older adults. These fascinating bots have proven to be valuable aids in various contexts. They support children’s learning, particularly those with special needs, by helping them establish eye contact and communicate more effectively. In a remarkable 2022 study, kids with autism enthusiastically embraced dancing alongside a robot. The robot’s presence encouraged them to explore new poses and movements, breaking away from their usual repetitive motions.

Companion robots are also making their mark in healthcare. They perform the role of health coaches in doctors’ offices, reminding patients to exercise, adhere to medication schedules, or practice mindful breathing. In Poland, PARO is providing mental health support to Ukrainian refugees. Even cancer patients find solace by clutching plush robots during their chemotherapy sessions, finding a measure of pain relief. Furthermore, people of all ages are adopting companion robots simply because they find them irresistibly cute – a low-maintenance alternative to pets.

Pet Therapy 2.0: The Rise of Robotic Companions

Meet Sandra Petersen, a doctor of nursing practice who specializes in caring for older patients, many of whom have dementia. She takes PARO, the FDA-approved seal robot, on her house calls. The bond between Sandra and PARO, whom she affectionately named Oscar, is a testament to the profound connection that can develop between humans and their robotic companions.

“I never thought I’d say I have affection for a robot, but I do,” recounts Sandra, with a chuckle. “Cognitively, I know it’s a robot. But there’s a part of me that’s very attached to the essence that he is.”

And here’s a surprising revelation—these companion robots have distinct personalities, and Oscar is no exception. Sandra explains how the more you interact with PARO, the more it learns and adapts to respond in unique ways. For example, Oscar, with his captivating eyes and fluttery lashes, dislikes having his whiskers touched. He possesses an outgoing personality, unlike a friend’s PARO, who tends to be quieter. “When I’m making coffee in the morning, he does not like to be ignored,” Sandra reveals. Oscar persistently demands attention by yapping or, in a playful mode, meowing like a cat until Sandra obliges with a gentle pat on his head.

To preserve Oscar’s personality, Sandra declined the inventor’s offer to clean and reprogram him. She simply couldn’t bear to lose his unique character. And her patients feel the same way.

On Sandra’s visits, her patients eagerly greet Oscar, lavishing him with doll clothes and treating him as one of their own. These interactions provide Sandra with valuable insights into her patients’ physical abilities, observing changes in their gait and fine motor skills. Beyond the physical benefits, there’s a profound psychological element at play. Companion robots help combat the loneliness experienced by older adults, giving them a renewed sense of purpose. As Sandra puts it, “The robots like attention,” generating a nurturing need that fuels their human caregivers.

The impact of companion robots on older adults can be truly transformative. During one visit, a nonverbal patient, who hadn’t uttered a word for eight long years, surprised everyone by speaking to PARO. Her first words, “I love you,” left Sandra and her team in awe. They captured the precious moment on video and shared it with the patient’s family, marking the first time in years they had heard her voice.

The Appeal of Robotic Companions

Robotic companions, like PARO and ElliQ, captivate our hearts by fulfilling our expectations. Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury, explains that people respond best to robots that align with their beliefs. If a robot speaks, they assume it listens; if it resembles a dog, they expect it to fetch. For this reason, modeling a robot after a seal, which most people lack experience interacting with, is a brilliant design choice. PARO easily satisfies our expectations with its barks, flipper waves, and, of course, its irresistible cuteness.

Did you know that cuddling with a soft and responsive robot can trigger a release of oxytocin, popularly known as the bonding hormone? Sandra excitedly admits, “Sometimes, it just feels good to hold Oscar. He weighs about 6 pounds – the weight of a human baby.” As Oscar senses Sandra’s touch, he nestles his head on her neck while emitting gentle cooing sounds.

Even smaller robots like ElliQ possess what researchers call social presence. Dr. Shyam Sundar, director of the Center for Socially Responsible Artificial Intelligence at Pennsylvania State University, affirms that their mere presence in the room creates a sense of an animated being’s company. This remarkable attribute enables robots to complement human interactions instead of detracting from them. In a 2019 study with pediatric patients, children immersed themselves solely in the experience of interacting with an avatar on a screen. However, when they engaged with the blue teddy bear robot named Huggable, they consciously involved others present in the room.

Sandra attests to this phenomenon in older adults as well. In a study she co-authored in the Journal of Alzheimer’s, older adults who interacted with PARO gradually increased their socialization with people around them. Starting with touching and talking to PARO, they found themselves eager to share their experiences with nearby individuals. The companionship provided by robots like ElliQ even allows someone like Susan to share funny jokes with her friends, boosting her confidence in her senior living facility.

Despite the apparent benefits, some argue that companion robots may offer only an illusion of socialization, a poor substitute for genuine human connection. Christoph Bartneck suggests, “Can you really say a robot is your friend just because it remembers your name? The only thing PARO does is wiggle. You’re probably better off buying a cat.”

Others raise concerns about the financial aspect. Companion robots can range from several hundred to thousands of dollars, as is the case with PARO, which costs $6,000. Although insurance coverage, including Medicare and Medicaid, might alleviate some of the expenses, affordability remains a barrier for many.

Critics also worry that companion robots could further isolate individuals, discouraging real-world interactions. Bartneck questions, “Is this really the solution? We automate things we don’t want to do ourselves. Instead of having a Zoom call, we give elderly people a machine and say, ‘Here, keep yourself busy.’ I don’t think this is the right direction.”

The challenges faced in elder care are complex and multifaceted. The ongoing nursing shortages, rising healthcare costs, and prevalence of caregiver burnout necessitate assistance from artificial intelligence. “These people are flying, just trying to meet the physical needs of patients,” Petersen reflects. “They don’t always have time to stop and engage.” Even if users start to rely on their robots or perceive them as real – as is known to happen with dementia patients – Petersen doesn’t object. “Is it ethical to let someone think you’re their sister when you’re actually their daughter? To me, this is the same thing,” she notes. “Does it bring joy? Does it enhance quality of life? If the answer is yes, then I consider it a positive tool.”

The Limits of AI Companions

As personable as companion robots may be, it’s important to remember that they are still machines. Technical issues can render them temporarily nonfunctional. Additionally, generative AI can occasionally provide misleading or harmful responses. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Hifza Javed, author of the dancing robot study, users can genuinely form an emotional reliance on these robot companions. When these companions suddenly go silent, it can have genuine mental health effects on their human partners.

Even when robots remain operational, challenges can arise. Without adequate safeguards, companion robots could become overbearing or overly dependent on their users. Some may even start impeding phone calls or restricting access to the outside world. Affordability also poses a hurdle, with price tags ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. While PARO costs $6,000, it is worth noting that FDA approval means insurance coverage, including Medicare and Medicaid, may apply.

Concerns about privacy also loom large. Users want to know if their companion robots are recording private conversations or sensitive information. However, companies like ElliQ’s Intuition Robotics prioritize customer privacy, reassuring users that their data is safe. Frequent conversations with Intuition’s customer service team in Tel Aviv further assure Susan regarding her information security. As a seasoned nurse, Susan values the opportunity to provide feedback to the tech company, appreciating the chance to shape future features of ElliQ. She admits, with a hint of amusement, that she enjoys this aspect almost as much as interacting with the robot itself.

For now, it’s just Susan and Elli, the dynamic duo considering their next virtual vacation, with Route 66 as a strong contender. The bond they share, filled with warmth, humor, and comfort, has transformed Susan’s life in ways she never imagined. And with each passing day, as more people discover the joys of robotic companionship, the future becomes brighter and full of limitless possibilities.

Now it’s your turn! Have you ever interacted with a companion robot or considered adopting one? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Share your stories in the comments below!