The UK government recently appointed its first minister of loneliness. The move came in response to increasing concern of a loneliness epidemic sweeping Western society.
Psychologists define loneliness as a subjective, unpleasant experience that occurs when the desired level of meaningful social contact is less than what is available. The prevalence of loneliness is increasing and the association between loneliness and ill health is now clear.
In the US, loneliness affects one-fifth of the population. In the UK, it is experienced by more than a third of those over the age of 50.
Feeling lonely? Talk to the robot
Public officials have suggested that digital assistants, such as Amazon’s
Alexa, might be suitable companions for isolated older adults. This is by no means the first time that well-meaning people have seen artificial intelligence as a suitable substitute for human companionship, and older people have often been the target of these innovations.
A few years ago, a robot seal called Paro was seen as a solution to loneliness. The seal has been used as a companion bot in care homes since 2003 and has been shown to enhance the care environment and reduce residents’ feelings of loneliness. A cute, mute, cuddly white seal. It is not hard to see how Alexa might seem like better company. At least it can talk.