Is artificial intelligence the solution to loneliness?
As the UK faces rising rates of loneliness and concerns about its effects, could artificial intelligence offer a solution? Elizabeth Barber investigates.
Concerns about rates of loneliness have been growing over recent years, with 25 per cent of the UK’s adult population saying they always or sometimes feel lonely. The COVID-19 pandemic increased loneliness among many groups – a report by the Campaign to End Loneliness found that those that were previously at risk of loneliness were at greater risk during the pandemic, while those who were already lonely before the pandemic generally became even more lonely. The impact of loneliness is substantial – one study described loneliness as having the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
AI has been proposed as a potential solution for loneliness – conversational AI is increasingly able to ask open-ended questions about a person’s life, while also mimicking emotions through the tone of voice used. Initial research supports the use of technology to reduce loneliness – a 2019 study found that conversational AI and chatbots help to reduce loneliness by providing social support. The BBC reported on the use of smart speakers with conversational AI for elderly people who live alone, with largely positive feedback from participants, who previously would often go several days without interacting with another person. While research in this area is still in its early stages, AI may aid in reducing loneliness.
Conversational AI is increasingly able to ask open-ended questions about a person’s life, while also mimicking emotions through the tone of voice used
However, there are considerable privacy concerns associated with this technology that cannot be overlooked. Smart speakers are notorious for their privacy risks – staff at Amazon, Apple and Google can listen to voice recordings from their smart speakers, which may contain identifying and potentially embarrassing information, while Amazon’s Alexa team has had access to users’ home addresses. The potential of this technology will only increase in the future – Google and Amazon have filed patents that outline how their devices could monitor more user activity, enabling them to mine this data for targeted advertising.
These data privacy risks are especially concerning given that loneliness is more common among vulnerable groups, including those who experience poverty or are from ethnic minority groups or the LGBTQ+ community. When users are encouraged to divulge private and sensitive information about themselves and their past – as conversational AI aims to do – the consequence of a data breach, whether accidental or malicious, could be devastating.
The extent of loneliness across the UK is concerning, and we are only beginning to understand the profound effect it has on people’s physical and mental health. However, AI may not be the appropriate solution. While AI will become increasingly sophisticated over the coming years, it remains to be seen if we will be able to trust the companies who create this technology, and whether there can ever truly be a substitute for talking with a real person.