Source: UCLA

Recent years have seen a growing concern over loneliness, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. The most affected have been young people classified as Generation Z or Gen-Z anyone between 11 and 26 years old). With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), more people are forfeiting physical human interactions for conversations with AI-powered chatbots.

The Loneliness Epidemic

Human beings are built to interact. Social behavior has been a necessary part of the lives of humans since we last evolved, playing a major role in our species’ eventual success and proliferation. Interaction between people has been proven to have many positive effects on a person such as improving their mental health and averting issues such as depression.

The social lockdown and isolation imposed on the masses during the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for people to interact, causing loneliness. It also caused a rise in virtual interactions as a way to satisfy the inherent need to socialize. Unfortunately, most people have been unable to revert back to physical interactions resulting in worrying levels of loneliness.

According to a recent report on loneliness by Cigna, at least 7 out of 10 people aged between 16 and 24 sometimes or always feel lonely. The number has continually increased over the years even though the massive jump was between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, only 49.9% of Gen Z felt lonely while in 2018, it was only 48.3%.

Rate of loneliness | Source: Cigna

The concern has risen dramatically resulting in it being termed an epidemic. Earlier in the year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote a report sounding an alarm about the potential health crisis posed by increasing loneliness.

According to Dr. Murthy, loneliness can be as detrimental as smoking a dozen cigarettes a day and it increases the risk of premature death by 26%. In his report, he advised that it be treated with the same intensity as obesity, tobacco use, and opioid addiction.

Among the many solutions being considered, AI has risen as one of the immediate ways to curb the crisis. While many believe that AI-powered solutions may be the answer, experts fear that the technology will worsen the situation in the long run.

Curbing Loneliness or Compounding the Issue

In recent years, especially after the release of ChatGPT, chatbots have exploded in popularity and one avenue that some companies are targeting are companionship chatbots. Replika is one such chatbot that has been touted as the “AI companion who cares.” This may seem strange but some people genuinely feel a connection or even love AI companions.

I’m Falling In Love With My Replika
byu/NoQuieroEstarAqui_ inreplika

Such chatbots have seen hundreds of millions of downloads as people are desperate for social connections.

Furthermore, some medical experts have supported that the technology holds the potential to offer support and relief to most people suffering from loneliness. In fact, according to a Sermo survey of 307 care providers across Europe and the United States, 69% of physicians agree that social robots could provide companionship, relieve isolation, and potentially improve patients’ mental health.

“AI presents exciting opportunities to give companion robots greater skills to build social connection,” said Elizabeth Broadbent, Ph.D., professor of Psychological Medicine at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

However, considering how social media, which was initially also viewed as a solution to loneliness, has affected people and their ability to interact physically, there is a need to tread carefully in adopting AI solutions as a remedy to loneliness.

“But we need to be careful to build in rules to ensure they are moral and trustworthy,” Broadbent added. By interacting more with AI and building connections with chatbots, human beings risk the complete loss of the desire to connect with fellow humans again.

This overdependence could result in a bigger mental health crisis than the one currently posed by loneliness. Besides, interactions with chatbots and robots are nothing like human interactions.

Unlike AI which just provides conversation, human relationships and interactions involve emotions and sacrifices. They require effort from both parties and one often has to give something as much as they receive from the other person.

Daniel Cox, a writer for the American Storylines, said, “A relationship that requires us to make no sacrifice or accommodation, that never challenges our beliefs or admonishes our behavior, is simply an illusion.”

As such, AI chatbots are simply a quick and easy fix and it will only be a matter of time before humans realize that AI cannot replace human interaction (for most people).

Aside from the social implications, using AI to help reduce loneliness requires that the technology be built with guardrails in place. For starters, conversations with chatbots normally end with a lot of private information being shared by the user. As such, it is paramount that AI systems be developed in a way that guarantees the safety of the person’s data.

Additionally, judging based on the kind of conversations people have had with chatbots so far, it is possible that these programs could provide recommendations that are harmful to the user. This is a major risk considering how vulnerable people suffering from loneliness tend to be.

Therefore, regulations and standards need to be put in place for AI systems built for this purpose. To prevent overdependence, they should also be used to supplement rather than replace human interactions.

Even with regulations, Dr. Sai Balasubramanian states that using AI to combat widespread loneliness “sets a dangerous precedent.” “No system can (yet) replicate the intricacies of human nature, interaction, emotion, and feeling,” he said.

Instead, he recommends that healthcare industry leaders and regulators should prioritize viable and sustainable measures such as training more mental health professionals and increasing patient access to care.

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