Why companies are giving voice assistants physical forms people can relate to

Intuition Robotics CEO Dor Skuler talks relationships with robots and how to get older people to use voice assistants.

Usually when you read stories about AI and voice-based assistants, you’ll see references to either Spike Jonze’s Her, or HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But ElliQ, a new voice-assistant from Israeli startup Intuition Robotics, has more in common with 2012’s Robot & Frank, where an old man makes friends with his robot helper.

ElliQ is a static robotic voice assistant designed to help older people live more comfortably at home. The assistant proactively tells you when you should go for some exercise, practice your bridge, and lets you know when family members have sent you messages or uploaded pictures. An accompanying tablet shows the messages and pictures – which are routed through a chatbot that family members can add to messaging app groups - and enables video calls. The bot itself can move on its axis, and through simple motions is given a sense of personality.

The company has only recently come out of stealth mode – the ElliQ IDG Connect saw at a recent exhibit at the London Design Museum showed off the device’s movements but not software – but has backing from the likes of Bloomberg Beta and Terra Ventures. Intuition will be rolling out test products to selected older adults in San Francisco from February.


Alive but not human

ElliQ is but one of a slew of new takes on the voice-enabled assistant. Where once Siri on the iPhone was as good as it got, the rise of Amazon Echo and Alexa showed there was much more in the way of potential for the technology. Consequential Robotics, Mayfield Robotics, Ubtech Robotics, LG, and Emotech, are just a few companies that have recently revealed their ambitious takes on Amazon’s Alexa, which Skuler describes as “Siri in a Pringles box with better speakers, which has been unbelievably successful.”  Each one is trying to imbue your digital helpers with personality; whether that’s a more engaging physical presence or making the voice persona more engaging and tailored to your needs.

 “We've been conditioned through millions of years of evolution to connect to objects,” says Intuition CEO & founder Dor Skuler. “I think there's a lot to be said of the embodiment of the persona in order to actually build a relationship between humans and technology.”

“Think even of the Pixar logo. It's a lamp, it's an inanimate object which we have no feelings towards. We see lamps every day. But once the animators made her move and look at you, and sometimes there's a little lamp and a big lamp and they look at each other, we immediately feel emotion without anything being said. And those things are very real.”

Skuler is keen emphasise that ElliQ is not about replacing human contact. “I don't think any of us want to live in a world where robots keep our parents company.”

This desire not to overly humanise was key to much of its design. The name, for example was chosen partly because the company wanted something “relatable but clearly not human”, according to Skuler, partly because they needed something distinct for the wake up work, and partly after Elli, the Norse goddess of Old Age.

And while ElliQ still retains that clean, white aesthetics most robots are given these days, it lacks the humanoid features of a Pepper or similar robots. 

“We didn't give it hair, we didn't give it eyes, we didn't give it ears, but still it feels alive. We didn't want to make it to look like a stuffed animal or anything like that because it's not dignified. It's a very fine balance; you want to make sure that people who are not necessarily early adopters of tech will feel a strong affinity towards a product and allow us in their home.”

“The design looks nothing like a robot, but it's movement is something that feels alive. It’s this very aesthetic, subtle thing comes to life every now and then.”

Skuler explains that there was a lot of time spent on the movements of the robot to give it that lifelike relatability. Aside from working with Dr. Guy Hoffman – an expert in the study of movements in robotics and how they can create social bonds with humans currently running the Human-Robotic Collaboration Lab at Cornell University – Intuition filmed improvisation actors and consulted with animators.

“When we go to media training, the first thing they teach you is that 90% of communication is non-verbal. I'm not sure I believe that number, but I'm sure a large part of it indeed is non-verbal: our body language, our stance, our tone of voice.”

“And when using technology today we still leave out the majority of the way we communicate and intuitively understand each other. When ElliQ looks down and apologises [for example if she didn’t hear correctly or suggests the wrong music], the minute she looks down and changes her tone of voice, you already understand she's apologising.”

Older human-to-machine interfacing

On the surface, the logic behind ElliQ can seem somewhat puzzling. Older people aren’t known for their early adoption of technology, and you don’t get consumer products much more bleeding edge than voice-assistants for the home imbued with all kinds of machine learning.

“There’s not enough technology being developed for this segment,” Skuler explains. “And when there is, it focuses on the disabilities of aging people and not enough on helping day to day to improve quality of life.”

“New technologies are actually creating barriers. Think of listening to music: We expect mom or grandma to stream Spotify to her Bluetooth speakers.”

Over 90% of people over the age of 65 prefer to stay in their own home, rather than move to a care home. This can however, be difficult, and often lead to isolation. Skuler hopes ElliQ’s proactive approach to engaging with family and friends online will help overcome this.

“We don't see this as a healthcare product. We're trying not to focus on the disabilities of older adults, we see it as a product that can help older adults keep more active and engaged.”

Despite the Pringle jibe, Skuler and Intuition have learned a lot from Amazon Echo. The company actually put Alexa in 24 older adults’ homes to study how people generally seem averse to new tech and help intuition answer what he describes as “basic questions”.

“Would older adults talk a machine? That's not trivial. They gave us permission to film them for days at a time; hundreds of hours of older people using Alexa.”

So what did they find? Will grandma and grandpa let Alexa into their lives?

“They're willing to talk to a machine. And as soon as they saw that they can start having more of a relationship with Alexa they started saying things like "Goodnight", "Good morning", "How are you today?"

“We found that in almost all cases they walk up to Alexa really close, and talk to it, and say “please” and “thank you”. And to us that made it truly interesting, that they see her as an entity.”

And when asked about dogfooding and whether he’s tested ElliQ on any his own elderly relatives, he confirms that yes, his own parents were “highly involved” in the little robot’s development.