There’s No Cure for Covid-19 Loneliness, but Robots Can Help

During the Covid-19 crisis, Shibata has corresponded with people all over the world who have recently turned to Paro robots as a therapeutic tool. In addition to their increased prominence in elderly and memory care, Shibata says the pandemic has created some novel use cases. Workers at a high-volume call center in Tokyo who dealt with calls about coronavirus testing were given a Paro as a stress-relief tool this May. And Shibata has been emailing with a 34-year-old nurse in an Atlanta intensive care unit who started using a Paro this April as a way to cope with being isolated from his loved ones and pet. “He used to live with his family and a dog at the home, but in order to avoid any risks of infection from him to them, they moved to a different house,” Shibata says. Until he can return home, the Paro provides a semblance of companionship.

This sense of companionship doesn’t come cheap, though. Paro is predominantly used by institutions, because its price tag—around $6,000 in the United States—makes it prohibitively expensive for many individuals. “It’s a very real access problem,” Carpenter says.

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Paro, however, isn’t the only companion robot geared at alleviating loneliness. Sony’s Aibo—a cheerful dog equipped with a camera specifically to monitor children and the elderly—is less expensive than Paro but still costs around $2,800. There are more affordable models, like Joy for All’s stuffed animal-esque robots, which are available at places like Best Buy for around $130, although these offerings are more toylike than medical-grade. Jibo, a $900 social robot, gained devoted fans after its introduction in 2014 and looked like it could become a mainstream companion robot. But Jibo sunsetted its social robot in 2019, leaving loyal users sad that their little plastic friend no longer functioned—and highlighting the perils of bonding with an AI.

Meanwhile, the ElliQ, a “digital companion” from Israeli startup Intuition Robotics designed to help the elderly, isn’t commercially available yet, but Intuition is offering a free beta program during Covid-19. ElliQ doesn’t have the same tactile appeal as a fluffy seal, but its users have still become invested in the machine’s well-being during the pandemic. As part of the program, several users agreed to be interviewed and monitored by the company’s research team, a project that’s given the company intimate insights into how people are actually interacting with its creation, including what they say to their devices. The conversations make it apparent that people are using this type of robot as a sounding board, asking it the kind of questions they’d ask any friend. “Part of it is what you would expect, like ‘What are the symptoms for Covid? How many people are sick in my area?’ Things of that nature,” says Dor Skuler, a cofounder of Intuition Robotics. “Part of it is really interesting—they’re inquiring how she is doing. We’re seeing this often, like ‘How do you feel, ElliQ? ElliQ, can you get the virus? ElliQ, are you afraid?’”

While the arrangement between ElliQ’s beta testers and the company is voluntary, it underscores how this kind of companion robot does need to be closely examined for how well it safeguards its users’ information. Since many sophisticated companion robots gather data in order to customize their responses to users, they’re essentially friendly surveillance devices. “There are some privacy issues and potentially ethical ones,” Carpenter says of companion robots. “Especially if a patient is not cognizant of risks because they have dementia. Right now, a lot of these robots are designed so that, for example, data doesn’t go to the cloud and lives in the robot, so that’s helpful in terms of security. But people still need to ask these questions.” Many of these companies, including the makers of Paro and ElliQ, say they have considered these questions seriously and implemented protocols to protect privacy. Paro stores data locally and is not connected to the internet. ElliQ does sometimes store data in a cloud, but Skuler says Intuition has “gone to great lengths” to secure that information.

For all of the assistance and companionship that robots like Paro and ElliQ offer, though, they do raise a much larger question: Is it possible to make robots like these less necessary in a post-pandemic world? “I really hope that if there is any silver lining with Covid, it’s that people will see how isolated older adults are in society,” Skuler says. “Let’s not forget about them when we’re back to work.”


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