New York Gives Seniors AI Robots – What Could Go Wrong?

New York Gives Seniors AI Robots – What Could Go Wrong?

New York Gives Seniors AI Robots – What Could Go Wrong?

If you’re a lonely senior citizen, New York has a solution. They’ll give you a robot companion.

Nope, this is not science fiction any longer.

New York has introduced a new AI robot called ElliQ, to help combat loneliness among its senior residents with around 900 being handed out over the last two years. This voice-activated robot-companion has been distributed for free to elderly adults as part of an initiative led by the New York State Office for the Aging.

ElliQ features a small screen and a separate device resembling a head, which can swivel and light up when it speaks. Unlike other voice-activated devices like Amazon’s Alexa, ElliQ can initiate conversations, and is supposed to be a more interactive experience, according to the New York Times.

Since January, New York has also provided approximately 30 ElliQ robots to assisted-living facilities in a separate program designed to aid individuals transitioning back to independent living. Many elderly New Yorkers have embraced ElliQ, with users reporting significant improvements in their daily lives. Around 900 robots have been given out since the pilot phase started two years ago.

This AI “companionship” has been covered by local news before, but hasn’t made significant waves nationally yet.

Ohhhhhhkay. Where to begin.

Let’s start with the part that should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain – the isolation from the COVID-19 lockdowns was devastating to seniors. Not only did it end up being fatal in New York state thanks to then-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s insane plan to put COVID-positive seniors BACK IN their nursing homes, but the effect of isolation was just as detrimental to the mental health of these seniors who were often locked away in care facilities and unable to see or touch family members for months on end.

“Placing the COVID pandemic aside for a moment, societal trends have led us to the point where older adults are more likely to be isolated or lonely,” said Kathleen Zuke, MPH, senior program manager, Center for Healthy Aging, National Council on Aging (NCOA).

While social relationships are widely considered crucial to emotional well-being, Zuke said social isolation and loneliness can also have a negative impact on physical health. She pointed to a 2018 study on potential health risk factors of social isolation and loneliness, in which the author concluded that being socially connected significantly reduces risk for premature mortality, while being socially unconnected significantly increases risk. Moreover, these social isolation factors have a larger impact on mortality than factors that currently receive substantial public health attention such as obesity, physical inactivity and air pollution.

The study presented evidence that social isolation increases risk for depression, cognitive decline, and dementia, and directly influences medication/treatment adherence, blood pressure, immune functioning and inflammation, as well as the ability to conduct activities of daily living (ADL).

The effects of COVID isolation may be particularly acute among older adults in long-term care (LTC) facilities, as outlined in an AARP report that suggests feelings of loneliness, abandonment, despair and fear among residents – and their toll on physical and neurological health – are pushing the pandemic’s death toll higher.

“Before the pandemic, individuals in LTC facilities could benefit from the social connections and mental stimulation provided by visiting friends and family,” Zuke said. “Now, while staff members can try to provide interactions, they also have other tasks they need to focus on, making it impossible for them to be the sole source of interaction. Fortunately, restrictions are easing up somewhat.”

While the above article is from 2021, the problem has not abated. Remember, the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, announced in May 2023 that there was an “Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” declared that “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health.” And that wasn’t even focused on seniors – that was across the entire population. Nothing has gotten better, and a government program can solve loneliness by declaring it an “epidemic” is not going to work. New York state decided that ROBOTS were the best bet to help lonely seniors. Not community programs, not faith-based outreach groups, not volunteers – ROBOTS.

Speaking of which, this artificial intelligence is “initiating conversations” and learning and responding to the seniors it is talking to. Uh, who has access to that data?

Concerns have been raised about the potential for data harvesting and privacy violations, particularly given the vulnerability of the elderly population. “We have to hurry up and pass some guardrails so that this technology doesn’t take off with all of our information and data and use it in ways we wouldn’t otherwise permit,” (Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda) Rosenthal added.

State Senator Kristen Gonzalez echoed these concerns, “It’s incumbent on the state government to act and say how we are storing, protecting, and using that data and how we are making sure it’s not being used in any way that could negatively affect users.”

Any “smart” device that is in the home introduces privacy concerns, even for the most aware of users who pay for the experience. Amazon’s Alexa, and Ring cameras have already been the target of Federal Trade Commission complaints about companies or employees playing fast and loose with user data. While Intuition Robotics, the company that owns these ElliQ AI robots, promises that they are “HIPAA compliant,” they also admit that they are taking in a whole lot of personal data in their privacy policy. Are the seniors who are getting ElliQ devices from the New York State Office for the Aging also being walked through the privacy policy? Or are they simply given the device, having it plugged in and connected to the wi-fi, and then left with their new “companion” robot? I’m guessing it’s the latter.

Finally, how pathetic is it that the New York “solution” for loneliness in senior citizens is to simply give them a device that is designed to mimic human connection, but ends up separating the seniors from any additional human support? How often does the Office for the Aging check in on the seniors who have these devices? Did anyone offer them actual social services, like senior center groups or meal programs or school groups looking to earn community service hours? Or did New York just figure the robots were good enough, and that was that? They’ve handed out around NINE HUNDRED of these things. That means nearly a thousand seniors who are using this device instead of having an actual human make daily contact with them.

Our society is already in a sad place when it comes to the health and care of our senior citizens. If Artificial Intelligence becomes the substitute for human interaction, and the state pats itself on the back for a job well done, God help us all.

Featured image via kiquebg on Pixabay, cropped, Pixabay license

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  • Hate_me says:

    Change remains the only constant and, while I’m as technology-averse as any other Luddite, I cannot say this is a bad move on its face.

    Like any technology, it can (and will) be abused. That potential doesn’t mean the tech shouldn’t be utilized. Do I trust Albany to act in good faith? Absolutely not – but I definitely trust the average Waymo car to drive better than the average human behind the wheel (that doesn’t mean they aren’t without incident or as good as the better human drivers). I’m willing to bet, despite Hochul’s dirty finger in the pudding, this AI is better than the average therapist. Is it better than no therapy at all? Probably not – but “if wishes were horses, we’d all be eating steak.”

    Digital relationships have already largely eclipsed human contact – this new iteration is just a symptom, not the disease. Some dudes still picture Siri as their girlfriend.

  • Lloyd says:

    Reality has gone out the window….We are living in a make believe world!!

  • GWB says:

    Not community programs, not faith-based outreach groups, not volunteers – ROBOTS.
    Naturally. They are progressives and believe that technology can solve all of our human problems. Plus, other humans don’t want to do it – relationships take time away from posting on Instagram, donchano.

    this artificial intelligence is “initiating conversations” and learning and responding to the seniors it is talking to.
    There’s no “intelligence” in this thing. It’s hooked to a server complex that simulates human conversation by doing word association. It’s a higher order Furby. I would love to skew any algorithms by constantly changing up the meaning of words and making nonsense sentences and incoherent replies.

    And you can be dang sure they’re keeping the recordings. They would use it to diagnose me or you with dementia, or maybe thought crimes. I’ll bet there’s something in the user agreement about it. “For research and training purposes” or thereabouts – at first.

    the potential for data harvesting and privacy violations
    Get some “senior” hacker obtain one and hack right back into the system. Have him scam a bunch of elderly out of bank account information and such. Then simply post his results openly – especially where those recordings are in the system. Also, I guarantee this is NOT a government system – the servers are a commercial entity somewhere.

    Did anyone offer them…
    This is so much more efficient. And it’s technology so that’s cool, right? We’re all headed for this Progressive Utopia where we inhabit immortal robotic bodies – that’s the end result of transhumanism (of which transgenderism is just a part).
    But let’s not lay the blame entirely on the government of NY. If kids took back their parents and cared for them, it would make a huge dent in some of these problems.

  • Linda S Fox says:

    My sister and I, along with my brother to some extent, act as companions at a distance. We text, call, and use video calls to stay in contact. We live within about 45 minutes, or less, of each other, but, due to driving less, constraints on our meeting in real life, and caring for husbands, simply cannot visit as regularly as we would like to.
    So, in some ways, we have become ‘virtual friends’. However, we are HUMANS, and can supply needs other than simple responses.
    We also have active home lives – we all maintain our residences, my sister and I both care for and walk our dogs, and we all attend church. Although, for the last few weeks, I’ve mostly attended virtually, due to our aging dog’s disabilities and the need to have someone at home with him for all but short time periods.
    We have hobbies – my brother is actively engaged in his church’s various ministries, maintenance and upgrades for his own technology and those of his friends, and active involvement in personal education activities.
    My sister gardens and cans, makes meals from scratch, monitors her 21-years older husband’s health, and keeps in contact with family and friends. She is knowledgeable about current events.
    I have radio, reading, writing (blogs and books), and, until recently, crafts – my arthritis is making that difficult, and I have made plans to turn over much of my yarn and crochet hooks to other people who could use them.
    So, no, the pretend friend would not work for any of us.
    I’m not completely opposed to some elderly people using them, but I can easily see that they could be accessed for scams. Not to mention that HUMAN, or even pet contact would be better.

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