Danielle Ishak: Robots for Seniors

Photo by David Schmitz

Danielle Ishak, ’16 MS Human Factors and Ergonomics, is only three years out of graduate school, but her empathy for the elderly is keen.

“I don’t believe that most technology that’s out there has been designed for older adults. It’s very hard for them to use and it’s unfair,” says Ishak, a user experience researcher at Intuition Robotics. “Many in the older generation haven’t learned how to interact with technology. They know what it can do for them, but it’s very scary. They feel like they might break it if they touch it.”

Danielle Ishak holding ElliQ, a robot for the elderly. Photo by David Schmitz

Ishak, who began taking care of older people as a volunteer in high school, wants to develop technology that is easy for the elderly to use and that helps relieve what she sees as an epidemic among the elderly: isolation. She remembers as a teenager taking care of an older woman who becomes something of a surrogate grandmother. “I grew up far away from my grandparents, and I felt awkward among older adults. My mom realized this and she told me I should go volunteer,” explains Ishak. “I would go visit my friend very frequently. She had a lot of things that she needed help with. It became very important to me at a personal level, even at a young age. I started a volunteering group at my high school for this, too.”

Ishak’s attachment to her friend created a lasting love for older adults.

“I think it’s just neglect,” Ishak says of the current state of most tech products. “It’s sad that once you’re past a certain age, you’re no longer relevant and companies stop designing devices for that population.”

In 2019, Intuition Robotics will put ElliQ on the market. ElliQ, a robot for senior citizens that Ishak has helped develop, was featured by Bloomberg. The business publication said Ishak is making “a home assistant the elderly might actually want.”

Elli was the Norse goddess of old age in Scandinavian mythology and EQ is short for emotional intelligence quotient. ElliQ, the “social robot,” is driven by artificial intelligence and is designed to suggest activities for older people, get them online and make it easy for them to connect with loved ones. Among other things, ElliQ can tell jokes, suggest breathing exercises and offers reminders to drink water.

During beta testing, Ishak says she found that ElliQ—just by greeting senior citizens when they enter the room and giving them something to interact with—helped the seniors feel less isolated.

“I feel really good about the fact that I’m doing something that I know provides a lot of value to people,” she says. “I get immediate feedback about the hard work we’re doing and I can see this really has the power to change people’s lives.”

—Tom Kertscher


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