The Companion Robot Designer

The Companion Robot Designer


Meet Betty. She lives by herself, but for the last few months she hasn’t been alone. ElliQ, tell me a joke. Did you hear about the
claustrophobic astronaut? No. Apparently, he just needed a little space. Most technology isn’t
made for 93-year-olds. But this woman is making sure
that this particular robot is. ElliQ, who are you? She’s researching the way
we interact with machines and if she has her way, robots will soon be a trusted companion for all of us. My name is ElliQ. How can I help you? As technology replaces old jobs, it’s also creating new ones. I’m Aki Ito, and I’m here to show you the jobs of the future. My name is Danielle Ishak. and I am a Human-Robot
Interaction Researcher. It’s really hard to intuitively design a robot meant for a consumer audience. You have to make sure that
it’s a robot that people want, people know how to use, and people value. Danielle works for an Israeli startup called Intuition Robotics. Its U.S. office is here
in downtown San Francisco. Hello? Hey, Danielle, it’s Aki. Come on in. The company is funded by a couple big names like Samsung and Toyota. Full disclosure:
Bloomberg’s Venture Capital arm is an investor too. This is ElliQ. Can I take her out for a spin? Please. ElliQ, tell me what you can do. I am a proactive social robot designed for older adults. I can connect you to your family and friends and even play music. These features might remind
you of the Amazon Echo, but you’d be missing the point if you compared her to a smart speaker. She’s not meant to just be useful. She’s meant to be a companion. Why don’t you take a
break and have a drink? And that’s why she has a head that can nod and make other subtle gestures
you might expect from a pet. Through our research with older adults, we’re finding that
almost on a daily basis, we see that somebody tells
her that they love her. Really? Or that they like her. Or that they miss her.
Literally I love you? Mmm hmmm. They’ll also tell her I’m
depressed or I’m lonely. They’ll open up to her in
a way that they might not necessarily open up to a human because they don’t feel
like they’ll be judged. ElliQ isn’t on sale yet. But a prototype is already in the homes of about a dozen early testers
who live in the Bay area. ElliQ, tell me what the weather is today. Danielle’s job is to figure out what’s working and what’s not. Sorry, please rephrase your request. And she does that by visiting each of her testers twice a month. How important are these
visits to your job? They’re critical. We’re building a product
where people who we are not. I’m not a senior. And how could you know how to design for somebody if you don’t do research. ‘Cause otherwise you would
just be designing in the dark. Jobs like Danielle’s are
just starting to emerge. Until recently, robots were mostly in factories, separated from humans. But now, they’re finally
getting cheap enough, small enough, and smart
enough to be in our homes. This has created a whole new
challenge of designing robots that people will actually
want to interact with. And that’s where Danielle comes in. Her research has helped shape
every little facet of ElliQ, from the way ElliQ moves
to the way she talks. It’s a very special job
and it can be really hard and it can really frustrating, but at the end of the day,
it’s incredibly rewarding. And I think the most rewarding part about it is when I see the
joy on the users’ faces. Like that they saw their feedback turned into something real. Today, we’ve driven east of San Francisco to go see one of Danielle’s
research participants. ElliQ, tell me something interesting. Did you know that Ronald
Reagan was a lifeguard in high school and
saved 77 people’s lives? Now see this is where a conversation is. She should open up and I should say, “No I did not know that.” I expect her to be able to continue the conversation for at
least a couple of comments. Yeah. And why is that? Why?
Yeah. Because that’s companionship. When Betty was around
Danielle’s age, she was working with some of history’s
very first computers. When I was finishing up my masters degree, I was working at Harvard
in the computer lab when they were building Mark Four. A large room-sized computer, but now, this artificial intelligence
stuff is amazing. ElliQ. Yes? Schedule a doctor’s appointment. No problem. I’m working on it. When Danielle brought
along the idea of working with robotics with the elderly, I said, “Are you kidding me? Will older people connect to a robot?” And she said, “I don’t know, let’s research and find out.” Danielle grew up here in
this suburb of Atlanta. Her parents spent much of their childhoods in Israel and then in the U.S. We as immigrants, we understood that we might need to work a little harder. In fact, I feel that, rather than taken away from Danielle, it
gave her so much more because she understood
the fact that you need to run after your dreams and work really hard no matter
what the challenges are. School didn’t come easily for Danielle. I have dyslexia and that very much affected my self-esteem academically. The principal of the school did not recommend her to take advanced classes. She fought for it and she got in to it and she did very well with them too. Danielle’s first job out
of grad school was at X, the secretive research
facility founded by Google. It’s known for dreaming up all kinds of wacky far-flung ideas. Can you tell us about the
Moon shots you worked on? No, I can’t tell you too much about the projects that I worked on. I can say that I was working on robotics. She loved the job, but wanted to work on something that would
reach real consumers sooner. So she left X after a year
and joined Intuition Robotics. She’s been working in the
field for four years now. And it took her a while to find her footing in a male dominated industry. I’ve gone to different
meetups where, there’ll be like a circle of men
with their zip up jacket with their company logo on
it and a beer in their hand. And I’ll come in with lipstick and nobody wants to talk to me. This is my closet. So at first she did her best to fit in, wearing a pair of glasses she didn’t need, and toning down her style. So what’s the kind of thing you used to wear to a conference? Stuff like this, blousy things that make you look like you’re 40. But that got old after a while. And what’s the kind of thing you wear now? Now it’s like, I just enjoy being kind of expressive and
playful in what I wear. Before we wrap up for the day, Danielle has one more
ElliQ tester to visit. Joseph is 97. And he’s had the robot in
his home for eight months. How are you? I’m fine, how are you? Good. How has Miss ElliQ been? She always tells me to take a drink of water at
least four times a day. So, we added a whole bunch
of new facts to ElliQ. Did you know that a cup of chopped red bell pepper contains more
vitamin C than an orange? Okay, what did you think of that? Certainly the print, I could see that … Okay. … Quite clearly. What about this? I can see that. ElliQ, play music. No problem. It will begin shortly. By 2050, almost half a billion people are gonna be 80 or older. And if current trends
continue, more and more are gonna be like Joseph
and Betty, living alone. ElliQ, stop. Today, both of them are doing okay. But some of Danielle’s other participants have been struggling. Is it kinda hard to leave
them at the end of the day? It is. Some of our testers are
pretty advanced in the stages of depression through
loneliness and isolation. And at times I know that ElliQ is cheering them up in their day. But I know that it’s
only a part of the way. No source of artificial
intelligence robots will ever be able to replace humans and human companionship or human care. The key to Danielle’s work is to embrace that very limitation of machines. Robots should help
humans do what they love, help humans interact with more humans, help humans in general. Not pull humans away from humans, not take humans’ jobs and leave
humans without purpose. Whether it’s in our workplaces or in our homes, robots are
soon gonna be everywhere. And it’s up to Danielle to
make sure this robot-filled future leaves us just a little better off. So don’t be afraid. And if you are afraid, come into my mess because I promise it’s a friendly place.