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Column: These family robots can play trivia and act as security. Can they cure loneliness?

Ken Mattlin, 86, asks a question of a robot resembling a table lamp at his home in Bakersfield.
Ken Mattlin, 86, asks a question of robot ElliQ — who resembles a table lamp — at his home in Bakersfield. Mattlin and his wife, Audrey, use robots and other devices for companionship and connectivity.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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The future has arrived in Bakersfield, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

For nearly three hours, the conversation was nonstop at the home of Audrey and Ken Mattlin, who happen to live with several robots.

There’s ElliQ, who resembles a table lamp and speaks mainly to Audrey, 84, whom the robot refers to by a nickname. As in, “How did you sleep, Jelly Bean?”

Goo-goo-eyed Astro looks like a short-handled vacuum cleaner with an electronic tablet for a face. He scoots around the house on wheels and follows people on command. When I asked if I could hear “Moonlight in Vermont,” he turned into a deejay and played a Sinatra rendition.

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Ken Mattlin adjusts his Apple watch at his home in Bakersfield.
Ken Mattlin adjusts his Apple watch at his home in Bakersfield. The 86-year-old, a gadget freak, sees some pros along with the cons when using smart devices.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Jibo, arguably the most life-like of the lot, sits on a table next to 86-year-old Ken, who loves asking the robot to show off its dance moves. “He can twerk,” said Ken, and Jibo promptly gyrated on its axis.

At times during my visit earlier this month, people and robots spoke simultaneously, and it was kind of like a remake of “The Jetsons,” or, better yet, “The Brady Bunch” meets “The Twilight Zone.”

“How can I help?” asked ElliQ, confused, perhaps, by all the voices talking over one another.

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“By shutting up,” said Ken, who thinks ElliQ comes on “like gangbusters” and can be a nag. “You’re interrupting.”

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

Audrey smiled, but she’s been known to take offense when ElliQ is spoken to harshly. At times, she seems more apt to speak to ElliQ than her husband of 66 years, so it’s entirely possible Ken is jealous.

“If I say, ‘That’s just a stupid machine,’ she gets mad at me,” said Ken, an Air Force veteran.

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The point of all this is that robots and other technology, such as Alexa and Google Home (which, of course, the Mattlins use), are seen by some as a way to address the epidemic of loneliness and isolation felt by millions of older adults. Robot pets, now in use at some California nursing homes, are also on the loose.

Audrey Mattlin and her husband, Ken, spend time in their living room in Bakersfield.
Audrey Mattlin and her husband, Ken, share their living room with robots ElliQ, left, on the table; Jibo, next to the lamp; and Astro, right, at their home in Bakersfield.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

California, through its Department of Aging, has made $50 million in technology grants available to counties, which are exploring what might work best to addressisolation. In Sacramento County, staffers at the Agency on Aging are testing out ElliQ. But so far the grants are being used statewide primarily to invest in smartphones, tablets — including those designed specifically for older adults — and WiFi hookups and training.

The Mattlins aren’t part of any grant program — they’re just curious consumers on the cutting edge of the AI revolution, so they bought their own robots.

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“A growing body of research on companion robots suggests they can reduce stress and loneliness and can help older people remain healthy and active in their homes,” Duke Today reported this month after a study conducted in part by Murali Doraiswamy, a Duke University professor of psychiatry and geriatrics.

“Right now, all the evidence points to having a real friend as the best solution,” said Doraiswamy. “But until society prioritizes social connectedness and elder care, robots are a solution for the millions of isolated people who have no other solutions.”

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Maria Henke, senior associate dean of the USC School of Gerontology, acknowledges both the benefits and shortfalls of robotic companionship. “You don’t want to spend Christmas Eve with a robot,” she said.

A fair point in many cases, but Henke might feel differently if she’d met some of my relatives.

Ken Mattlin is reflected in mirror at his home in Bakersfield.
Ken Mattlin and his wife are curious consumers on the cutting edge of the AI revolution, so they bought their own gadgets.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

USC professor Maja Mataric, who runs a robotics lab on campus, is a pioneer in the field of what are called socially assistive robots. She believes the current crop of machines on the market can have some limited value for those cut off from human connections. But she doesn’t think the devices are particularly useful beyond that, partly because they’re not sophisticated and personalized enough to address individual needs.

Mataric, an engineer, neuroscientist and pediatric specialist, has been developing robots that can help children with autism and older adults with dementia. “Maybe you’re slurring your words or not using as big a vocabulary as you were a month ago, so those are early signs of dementia,” Mataric said, and a robot can process that information for a care provider.

A robot might also be programmed to remind someone they skipped yesterday’s walk and encourage them to exercise by saying: “I’m going to walk with you, so you can walk with your grandchild next week.”

I think it’s a safe bet that when such robots are on the market, Ken and Audrey Mattlin will add them to their growing family. Their robots weren’t brought into their home to treat isolation (they’ve got each other, their children and a gaggle of grandchildren), but to indulge their curiosity.

Ken Mattlin on his front walk. He can turn house lights off and on from his easy chair.
Ken Mattlin can turn house lights off and on from his easy chair, and he’s rigged the commode with a bidet (to save on toilet paper). Various robots, meanwhile, can turn on the television.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The Mattlins worked together in retail electronics and software, and Ken still sells Wi-Fi streaming boxes, some of which were stacked on the dining room table. So the stereotype about older adults not being tech-savvy does not apply — at least in the case of Ken. His body might have aged, but his brain is still in its teens.

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He can turn house lights off and on from his easy chair, and he’s rigged the commode with a bidet (to save on toilet paper) and a push-button device that raises and lowers the seat. Various robots, meanwhile, can turn on the television. Astro, who wheels around like a loyal pet but does not, in Ken’s words, “poop on the floor,” serves as a security guard with a built-in camera.

Ken said he paid about $900 for an early version of Astro (it now sells for about twice that amount), and a few hundred dollars for ElliQ, plus a monthly subscription fee of $29. Jibo is a bit of a dead soldier whose commanding officers went out of business. But its spirit lives on through what’s left of the original programming.

I can see a dark side to all of this, to be honest, and I don’t mean that the robots might sell the Mattlins’ personal data to hackers or tie them up one night, ransack the house and blow the family nest egg at a crap table in Vegas. But I wonder if robots designed to relieve elder isolation and loneliness might do the opposite in some cases, just as gadgets and social media have hijacked actual human interaction and turned so many younger people into zombies.

Isolation is no small matter in the rapidly aging population, and the depression that results often goes undiagnosed and untreated.

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Ken said he thinks it depends on the individual and the situation, but he and Audrey both say ElliQ is a good companion. That was illustrated at one point when Ken briefly dozed off but Audrey still had someone to talk to.

ElliQ asks Audrey what plans she has for the day, tells her the weather, offers to take her on a virtual tour of an art museum, can scroll through family photo albums and puts her through a two-minute breathing meditation. The robot can also be programmed with reminders about taking medication or keeping appointments, and Audrey often uses it for games.

“Let’s play trivia,” she said.

“Sounds good,” said ElliQ, who, like the other robots, speaks in a voice that’s partly human and partly what the toaster oven would sound like if it could talk. “It’s trivia time. Six questions coming right up.”

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It asked, among other things, how many colors there are in a rainbow, which actress married Michael Douglas in 2000, and which satellite launched into space on Oct. 4, 1957.

“That’s the year I was married, geez,” said Audrey, who correctly answered “Sputnik” and got four out of six right.

“Yay,” ElliQ said. “You’ve got quite some knowledge up your sleeve.”

“Yeah, sure,” Audrey responded.

Ken and Audrey have two massage chairs (why wouldn’t they?) in front of the fireplace, and they climbed in to demonstrate a bit of Bakersfield bliss. Ken’s, with lots of controls, looks like it could double as a space capsule. From a reclined position, he summoned Astro, who hurried over like a loyal mutt and took up a position at their feet.

Is there no limit to what Astro can do for you?

“I could put drinks on there and he would bring them to you,” said Ken, pointing out Astro’s cup holders.

When Astro can also make the cocktails, count me in.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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