Artificial Intelligence: a companion to fight loneliness

Olivia Brookhouse    30 July, 2020

Today is International friendship day, a day where we can celebrate all those individuals around us that bring us joy daily. Whilst we might imagine the youth population to be celebrating the most, publishing on social media and sharing photos in their group chat, they may actually feel lonelier than we think. It is reported that 40% of the 16-24-year olds surveyed last year reported that they often, or very often, feel lonely despite being in frequent contact with their friends. This is compared to the over 75’s whom only 27% declared themselves as feeling lonely. So why are friends so important and how can AI help?

The importance of friendship

Friendship is the ultimate antidote to loneliness. Friendship helps protect the brain and body from stress, anxiety, and depression. Plus, the ability to choose who these friends are, means that we can surround ourselves by positive people. Anyone who has been through a significant milestone in their life will now how good it feels to be able to share with those closest to you.

Research shows that you only need to have 4 or 5 really close friends to see the health and social benefits. But many people find it hard to push themselves out there to meet new people.

So, we ask ourselves, how can technology and more specifically, Artificial Intelligence provide a solution to loneliness amongst the youth population or give them the confidence to go out and make human friends.

Can technology help?

Whilst many may believe that technology and more screen time is not the answer to youth loneliness, technology is already integrated into most areas of their lives. Therefore:

  1. AI companions will be integrated into young people’s existing social lives and social platforms
  2. As digital natives, young people are the most open to AI companions

They are digital natives and therefore technology must be part of the solution. Denying the influence technology could have for good is ignorant and we must put ourselves in the shoes of young people, where technology runs through their veins. Screens have the ability to both isolate and connect depending on how you utilize them. Two of the most popular forms of content are gaming and social media, both of which rely heavily on users to directly interact and participate in the content. Particularly in gaming, participants are in constant interaction to work together and learn new skills.

The reality is that young people’s lives operate online and therefore the solution must be built within the existing structures to have a real effect.

The AI chatbot to the rescue

AI chatbots, like those we often see on our favourite retail site can quickly become very in tune to our emotions and thoughts to provide support.

“The primary goal of social chatbots is to be AI companions to serve users’ needs for communication and emotional support.”

Artem Rodichev, Replica 

Emotion AI, also known as Affective Computing dates back to 1995 and refers to the branch of Artificial intelligence which aims to process, understand, and even replicate human emotions. The technology aims to improve natural communication between man and machine to create an AI that communicates in a more authentic way.

Using Natural language processing these chat bots can process, understand, and respond to language in an authentic way to offer and personalized support. Overtime, the AI will learn patterns in your speech and remember key facts, much like a friendship. AI and neuroscience researchers agree that current forms of AI cannot have their own emotions, but they can mimic emotion, such as empathy. Synthetic speech also helps reduce the robotic like tone many of these services operate with sound more realistic.

Replica is one of the leading companies in the field. Their app, with over 2 million signups which currently has an 85% satisfaction rate. Users are able to send photos, chat about their day and work through their problems and receive meaningful responses in return. Each chat bot has an individual personality to provide consistency in conversations and offer “real” opinions about given subjects based on the personality type it has been assigned.

These types of applications have the ability to have a great effect on mental health and loneliness. It would be amazing to see these types of platforms integrated within existing social media apps to provide integrated solutions.

Does this mean that AI can replace human beings in this sense?

Gershenson, who holds a doctorate in the design and control of self-organizing systems from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, says that although AI has defeated man in some respects, such as chess, we are a long way from a machine replacing a human.

In spite of the fact that technology is capable of learning what empathy is, they are not people and they don’t care about anything. They can learn, but they cannot develop real feelings as we humans do. It may be similar to what a person can show, but it is not the same. Human company will always be required too!

Read the post in spanish here

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