Why is some technology considered assistive, adaptive, or enabling, and some isn’t? If we’re splitting hairs, all technology possesses at least one of these attributes. So why is it that in the world of disability services, people take such a narrow approach when drawing those lines? That is the question that has been on my mind lately: What makes a piece of technology properly “assistive technology?” I don’t have an answer to that question, but being aware of the fuzziness of the boundaries between regular technology and assistive technology provokes us to widen our consideration of what could be assistive to the people we serve.
Part of opening our minds to new technology possibilities includes recognizing the similarities and differences between ours and another industry, the aging assistive technology market. While the needs of the two populations are varied, the technology designed to serve them may not be as different as they appear. For this article, in order to compare and contrast these technologies, I will examine the ElliQ robotic companion. After going through its features, I will discuss how they are poised to serve similar needs in the population of people with disabilities. Following this, I will talk about how ElliQ could be changed to better suit the needs of people with disabilities. Altogether, I believe exploring ElliQ and its potential in the disability technology area will disrupt previously held notions about what constitutes assistive technology and encourage exploring solutions on the basis of the needs they serve and not who they are marketed to.
To begin, what is ElliQ? ElliQ is the creation of Intuition Robotics, an Isreal-based company formed in 2016. Their team of roboticists, industrial designers, developers, gerontologists, and machine-learning experts worked together to create this flagship product. ElliQ won the 2018 CES Best of Innovation Award. The device itself is small, opaque white robot with a large, expressive head and an attached screen. ElliQ responds to voice commands but can also be interacted with via the screen. Similarly, ElliQ can talk but also uses the screen to display information. This combination of audial and visual representation provides accessibility for the hard of hearing or visually impaired. However, it should be noted that for many people with disabilities, standard speech patterns aren’t the norm. It is possible that the speech recognition software could have trouble understanding speech-divergent individuals. Form aside, what is ElliQ’s purpose? ElliQ was created to serve as a helpful companion. It combines the connective features of modern technology with added utility features such as reminders. Users can play music, video chat with loved ones, and even play trivia. What’s more, ElliQ is equipped with machine learning, which means that it can get to know the specific person who is using it.
The possibilities of machine learning are dizzying in and of themselves, but how does machine learning and all of ElliQ’s other features serve the needs within the I/DD world? First and foremost, I believe that fundamentally ElliQ would serve a unique social role in the individual’s home. ElliQ’s ability to give reminders, for instance, could be equipped to prompt the individual to take their medication. Med reminders are not unique to ElliQ, lots of other technologies and people (staff, parents) can give them. What makes ElliQ unique in this situation is it’s social role in the home. The reminder is not being given by a parent or by a caregiver. It’s not a nag, it’s not impertinent. It’s more like a pet, without as many responsibilities. What’s more, it’s connectedness, the ability to video chat with loved ones, brings it closer to a family friend. The power that sort of companion could have for a person with disabilities is great.
Additionally, and somewhat paradoxically, it increases independence. I say paradoxically because adding an entity to give reminders, etc. is not typically thought of as independence-increasing. ElliQ is not a person. ElliQ is an AI companion. Truly, with its modular expressions and soothing (albeit somewhat flat) voice, it presents itself with person-like qualities. Though ElliQ isn’t used to replace human relationships, but rather to supplement them. ElliQ can give people with disabilities true independence, provided they possess a certain ability level. I’m not sure that the utility of ElliQ is yet fully understood (especially regarding the machine-learning potential), but it’s connectivity potential and reminders options already make it something that addresses some needs of some people with disabilities.
Which brings me to my final thoughts on ElliQ: the future possibilities. As we move toward a world of greater accessibility through technology, I think it would be nice to see Intuition Robotics introduce more integration with other systems. For example, can ElliQ call emergency services if the individual falls and is unable to get up? Do they have plans in the future for ElliQ to be able to turn lights on/off? To turn the TV on/off? I think these features are essential to creating a lasting impact on the world of disability/aging technology as the industry moves toward greater integration. Also, an interesting development could be a companion that people with disabilities could talk to, someone they could share details about their day with and get feedback. I don’t know how sophisticated the machine learning would have to be to create something that works well for people with disabilities, but it definitely presents an opportunity. It would also be interesting to see if there would be any utility (like working on responsibility or empathy) in creating an artificial “need” ElliQ has. It could be instructive, in terms of responsibility, to require that ElliQ be “fed.” Something that would require that you be nice to ElliQ could also be instructive on the empathy side. Creating something that “requires” a bit more effort on the part of the user may help habilitate people with disabilities to the notion that if certain needs are met, the reward is companionship.
Altogether, I think ElliQ is an interesting development in the world of assistive technology. While I don’t claim that it would be great for every person with a disability as it currently is, I do think that it should be explored. I hope that the features of ElliQ and how they could serve people with disabilities has moved you a little on the question of what is AT. With technology developing rapidly and clear possibilities for where it could go in the future, I would expect that more products like ElliQ will be coming out soon. It’s our responsibility to evaluate them, criticize them, and celebrate them. We are all part of this disability technology movement. You, me, ElliQ, the industry, and the people they serve together form the future of compassionate care.