Intuition Robotics CEO Dor Skuler discusses innovations in elder care
Intuition Robotics recently released their product ElliQ – an A.I. enabled assistant focused on elder care and keeping senior citizens connected to their children, grandchildren and the world at large. At CES 2018, Intuition Robotics’ CEO Dor Skuler visited the #WhatsNEXTLive stage to discuss artificial intelligence, healthcare, IoT and the difficulties of developing hardware.
Ryan Lawler: I have known Dor for a little while because I had written about his startup in a previous job, and now he is the newest announced investment from Samsung Next. So, welcome to the family Dor.
Dor Skuler: Thanks, a pleasure to be here.
Ryan Lawler: So, you run a company called Intuition Robotics but the actual product is ElliQ. So, tell me about what ElliQ is or what it does.
Dor Skuler: Sure, so ElliQ is the first fully proactive social robot. We designed her together with and for older adults to help them stay active both mentally and physically, overcome the digital divide, and thrive while aging in place.
Ryan Lawler: Okay, and just curious, how did you start with this company? Did you have family or whatever that were going through this stage of their life and you wanted to build a product for them? Or was it something else?
Dor Skuler: Yeah, so my co-founders and I were together in corporate in a large company called Alcatel Lucent, now part of Nokia, and we wanted to do something that has high impact to people’s lives. And maybe because we’re all around 40 and our parents are aging and I lived abroad for a long time and kind of dealt with the troubles of connectivity with my parents and so on…But look, loneliness and social isolation with older adults is a significant issue in modern society. We’re looking at 20 to 30% of the population being above 65 in the next few decades, and loneliness and social isolation have direct causality now proven with advanced dementia, depression and even mortality. But what’s really interesting is when older adults keep connected and engaged, they push all of that out, they’re happier and there’s less stress on their family.
Dor Skuler: So that really fascinated us. And we were wondering if we can create technology that’s intuitive and simple enough to allow older adults to thrive and connect to their family, use whatever the internet has to offer in a way that’s engaging and positive as opposed to many technologies we see in the senior space that focus on disabilities.
Ryan Lawler: Good. So we don’t have a copy of, we don’t have one of the devices here with us, but if you could describe it…It’s kind of like a robot with a tablet attached, kind of?
Dor Skuler: Yeah. It has two components. It doesn’t look like any robot you’ve ever seen before. It has kind of like a lamp shaped type of body and a screen. And there’s interconnectivity between the two. So first of all, it’s proactive not reactive. So as opposed to an Alexa where you need to say “Alexa, play music”, here ElliQ through our A.I., she understands what’s happening in the scene in front of her and will find a right time to create an interjection and based on the goals that are set in the system, she might suggest for you to go for a walk or to play a game or learn something new or listen to music…She’ll help you communicate with family, etc.
Dor Skuler: And the fact that this entity allows us to use essentially body language…Because as humans when we communicate, verbal communications is actually a small part of how we communicate. That’s why we wanna meet face to face, right? Our body language, our facial expressions all matter, and we’re wired to interact with devices. So you have on one side, a device that moves and interacts in a way that’s intuitively understandable for people, even if they fear technology and haven’t been around technology too much. And on the other side there’s a screen that provides content, so shows pictures and then ElliQ looks at the pictures, she understands what’s in it…It allows us to use a closed captioning if you don’t hear well or if you miss what she said, and play off between the two.
Ryan Lawler: Gotcha. It sounds like you’re collecting a lot of data through this so that you’re able to make the right recommendations or engage with an older adult at the right times. What are the different sensors and what are you trying to capture or recognize with it?
Dor Skuler: Yeah, so we rely on a lot of computer vision. We’re actually working with another Samsung NEXT company, Brodmann 17, which are great. But we also have a lot of our in-house computer vision capabilities, that helps us a lot. We use microphone erase, both to give us the understanding of what you said but also direction and recognize other things one can do with voice. We have touch capacitors, we have temperature sensors, we have CO2 sensors and other things there as well. And we fuse all of these censors together to give us the context and the view of the world that our A.I. engine uses to make decisions.
Ryan Lawler: And there’s an interesting communication aspect where, you know, I think we’re seeing this a lot in some other devices, but allowing families to connect with the tablet, it has kind of like a video conferencing capability, is that correct?
Dor Skuler: Yeah, we do video conferencing. We also work with Facebook pretty closely. The whole goal for us is to allow, to reduce friction. Right? So the grandkids, how do they talk to Grandma today? Well usually, the kids guilt them into calling Grandma, right? They call them on the phone, it’s an awkward conversation full of silences and it ends up being around health. “How are you doing Grandma?” “Oh, my back hurts”. That’s not the conversation either party wants to have. What my daughters want to do is send selfies, maybe of their report card, of an art project or whatever. My five year old, by the way, mainly wants to send emojis. Like, a lot of emojis. And the older adult, they just want to get the benefit.
Dor Skuler: So we’re trying to reduce friction so the family can just use Facebook messenger or whatever platform and the older adult can reap the benefits, but they don’t need to master the tool. So ElliQ will wake up, and you have a really compelling gesture, and she’ll be happy about it and say “Hey Ryan, there’s a new picture from your grandkids and they sent a message, do you want to hear it?”. It will read you the message karaoke style, look at the picture, usually understands what’s in the picture, and then she’ll turn around and look at you and say “do you feel like replying?”. And if you say “yes” will capture your reply, send it over to messenger, and you’re part of the conversation.
Ryan Lawler: From just a trend perspective, you talked about aging in place and older adults living alone longer, what’s driving that and what are you seeing? Like what’s the research or the data driving that?
Dor Skuler: Yeah, so 90% of older adults live at home and don’t go to independent living facilities. And it’s going to be 30% of the population, in Japan it’s already 25%. In America, 11,000 boomers retire every single day. Now, this whole notion, I mean the demographics have really changed, but also the way we live have changed. So we live further away from our parents than ever before, we work around the clock because of technology…And that drives, technology is actually driving a bigger wedge. Because if you think about it, we can learn anything we want to when we’re older just like when we’re not, it just takes us more time and more effort. So basically, our ability to learn new things declines. And the rate of change of everything about us, about our life that we need to be a functioning member of society… From how do we consume music with no more CD’s, how do we get around with Uber and Lyft and how do we communicate with the grandkids… It’s all changing. So there’s a growing wedge between the two. And we find that there’s a real need to help older adults overcome that gap so they can thrive.
Ryan Lawler: So one of the other things about this…I think your company is one of the few companies that we’ve backed that actually creates hardware, you specifically wanna invest in software and services companies, there’s a component to that. But you’re also trying to sell a device. So what have you learned in creating hardware, and everybody says hardware is hard, but what have you learned from that side of things?
Dor Skuler: Hardware is hard. Maybe the biggest important decision we made early on is to first decide how the product needs to look and function and only then build the electronics in the product. We were very fortunate to work with people like [inaudible 00:08:40], the design and the legendary Don Norman on the user experience. We work with over 150 older adults to really try to understand their needs but also the interfaces and the interaction models that they want to see in the product. And we created those constraints and then had our engineering team fit into that. It’s hard to do, but I think the alternative of first building a product and then giving it to a designer to make it look pretty…I think in that case you end up with electronics surrounded by a plastic box. Right? And if you see this product, it is truly a beautiful aesthetic. And Eve did an amazing job there.
Ryan Lawler: Okay, sounds awesome. So one of the other things that I think is interesting about this device is that, or what you’re building, is that we hear a lot about how A.I. is going to take away jobs. And we hear a lot about how elder care is one particular growth opportunity for people to be retrained into and yet you’re creating this device that uses A.I. to reduce perhaps, the need for outside care providers.
Dor Skuler: Yeah, so I don’t think that’s true. What we’re trying to do is to, and not because of the macro, but just like tactical product. What we’re trying to do is leverage this technology to bring people together. And even if you get a caregiver that helps you, usually it’s in later stages of decline. We’re still working with people that are fully independent, it’s just harder for them to use technology maybe, maybe harder for them to leave the home. But you still need somebody to come and help you, right? What we’re actually seeing is a few companies in the elder care space want to provide ElliQ, and let’s say you’re not feeling well and you say “ElliQ, I kind of don’t feel well today”, she might say “well let’s get a caregiver to come and make you some soup, or maybe you need some help with shopping today”. So I actually think that getting people closer together gives more transparency, reduces a lot of the burden on caregiving…
Dor Skuler: The AARP last month released a study that just the Medicare costs of loneliness with the senior population in the U.S. alone is estimated 6.7 billion dollars. But once there’s transparency when people connect then they can understand where human help is needed. And frankly, I mean if your family lives far away, both sides want the kids to be closer to your grandkids. Everybody wants the parents to be closer to their grandparents, to their parents and so on. But we need a way to bridge that gap. I do think though that the big paradigm shift is in this move from proactivity, to proactivity from reactivity. We’re not used to having devices wake up and start talking to us. So imagine you’re just in the living room and ElliQ all of a sudden says “hey, it’s really nice out, why don’t you stop watching TV and go for a walk?” We find that with the elder population, because they tend to repeat a routine, there’s a lot of room for such an intervention, and a little bit of a nudge to help them meet their own goals for active aging.
Ryan Lawler: Gotcha. And so, how do you get, you know, a demographic, that isn’t used to interacting with technology in that way, whether it’s voice assistance or whatever, comfortable with this idea of having this robot in their house that’s going to proactively talk to them rather than reactively respond to whatever they might need?
Dor Skuler: Well, first of all, we need to prove it. We’re pre-launch, we’re entering people’s homes next week, 30 homes…So we’ll learn a lot from that. But the way we approach it, at least for now, is to work with the older adults themselves. So we had over 150 older adults work with us on the design process. We tried a lot of things. We failed hard many times. Probably we’re gonna have a lot more failures in front of us. But I don’t think we can sit from Tel Aviv and say “this is how older adults need to use technology”. It’s much easier for us to work with them and try things again and again and again and again ’til we get to an experience that they love. And, let’s see.
Ryan Lawler: Well, maybe give me some examples of some of the things that you learned. Whether it was false assumptions, or things that you didn’t think about in working with these people.
Dor Skuler: Yeah, like I’ll give you two that were hard lessons. The first is we thought that the best way to explain to a user when they should talk and when they should listen, because the system is talking and they don’t talk over each other, is with a beep. Because we figured they’re used to answering machines and the beep will be good. So we’ll say something like “hey, do you want to listen to some music?” Beep…And expect a response. That was terrible. It was terrible. The beep turned them off, it got them confused, they heard the beep and then they started thinking about what they’re gonna say. By then we timed out. Completely, it was wrong. So we understood that we need to use some of the animatronic capabilities, of movement, and kind of look at you and turn on the lights and then they intuitively understood that they should speak. So that was one interesting example…I had another one in mind and I kind of lost it. But it will come back to me in a second.
Ryan Lawler: It’s okay, we can come back to it. And so you’re entering into this trial. Maybe tell me a little bit more about what that is, what that will entail.
Dor Skuler: Yeah, so we’re entering 30 homes to start. 15 in Marin County, 15 in Celebration, Florida. About a third we recruited ourselves, a third we work with Comfort Keepers which is an organization that provides personal care for people to age in place, and a third is with Village to Village Network which is a non profit that helps retirement communities self-organize. And what we’re trying to do is cover the gambit between, basically we have a testing matrix. So, people that live alone or couples, people that like technology, don’t like technology, asynchronous couples as far as their decline, etc. etc. etc. It will be a prolonged trial for about two months. And from there, we’ll get some key learnings, and we’ll decide when we’ll launch. We have a manufacturing line that will be up and running shortly, it’s already producing the beta units, and we need to see that the experience is good enough and later in 2018 we will commercially launch the product.
Ryan Lawler: That sounds fantastic. So, if someone is interested, once you’re ready, in getting one of these products or trying it out, how would they find out about you?
Dor Skuler: Yeah, so the best thing to do is go to ElliQ.com. There’s a sign up page for a wait list. There are already thousands of people that signed up and we’d love whoever’s watching this to sign up as well. And another plug for Samsung, it’s also a wonderful audio experience with the best in class Harman Cardyn speakers embedded in the product. So, just figured I’ll say that here.
Ryan Lawler: Awesome. Well, thanks for joining us and telling us about ElliQ. Wish you a great 2018 and good luck with the trial.
Dor Skuler: Thanks for having me here and forgot to mention one thing, we’re very thankful for the CS Organization for giving us the best of innovation award for the smart home category, so thank you.
Ryan Lawler: Awesome, congratulations.