Even If Robots Can 'Fix'​ Loneliness, The Question Remains – Should They?

5 years ago
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What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage

There’s nothing new in saying that technology plays an important role in keeping us connected with each other. Take a look at the Old Timers Guild, and you’ll find a community of approximately 10,000 ‘mature gaming fans’, which can claim amongst its ranks grandparents, and a few great grandparents.

Still, it would be unreasonable to expect that loneliness can be addressed solely by being part of an online community, and there’s a reason why physical face-to-face interactions are given premium importance.

In this regard, recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures give us grounds for concern, identifying that approximately 25 per cent (2.3 million) of Australian homes are lone-person households. What’s more, this is expected to increase to approximately 45 per cent (3.4 million) by 2036.

It’s reasonable to infer that with increasing numbers of people living alone, there’ll be a correlation with the rise in cases of loneliness. Last year’s Australian Loneliness Report saw a 17 per cent increase in respondents living alone. To this, Relationships Australia noted the following:

Decreasing levels of social support and emotional loneliness associated with ageing were generally observed for people aged 55 to 64 years. After age 64, while social support rates continued to decrease, emotional loneliness rates increased, with the highest rates of emotional loneliness observed for people aged 75 years and over (19 per cent).

Advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, and robotics means that technology is in an ever-better place to tackle loneliness.

In fact, technology is no longer merely connecting people, it’s now tangibly able to replicate and surrogate human connections—either in place of humans, or in addition to them. Robots (broadly defined) can make recommendations, coordinate care, provide companionship, and remind you to take your medications; they can also offer real physical pleasure.

As our lives are ever-more mediated by technologies with increasing linguistic, social and emotional sophistication, everyday social and emotional interactions that we have with each other will change—much of this facilitated through third-party vendors.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is possibly the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For about 80 years, the study has tracked the lives of 724 men, of whom approximately 60 are still alive and in their 90s.

Richard Waldinger, the Study’s Director, notes the following insights:

  • Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.
  • It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.
  • Relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.

And this provides fitting context for aged care products and services that replicate human connections. All too often, the ongoing dialogue focuses on whether replication can be done, rather than whether it should be done.

As Noel Sharkey, Co-Director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics noted:

Society could reap enormous benefits from AI and Robotics, but only if we get it right. We need to counter the scare stories, and the hype, or risk a public backlash. We must offer the public a mark of quality that helps them to make informed decisions.

Taking into account lifespan and health considerations, and varying levels of digital literacy, you’d be correct in concluding that there isn’t a one-size-fits all answer.

The time to consider this is now, and in practical and tangible terms, void of marketing spin, and Luddite dystopian scaremongering.

The good life is built with good relationships. What hasn’t been made clear is technology’s role as an emotional connector and agent.

Get it wrong, and we might irreversibly disrupt the social arrangements we currently take for granted. Get it right, and we might just be at the precipice of living in a better world.

To quote the Roman statesman, Cicero: ‘Every stage of human life, except the last, is marked out by certain and defined limits; old age alone has no precise and determinate boundary.’

Merlin Kong
Head of innovAGEING