AI's loneliness crisis
Loneliness in the U.S., which spiked during the isolation of COVID, remains a public health "crisis" — and now the advent of ubiquitous AI-driven chatbots could make actual human contact even scarcer.
Why it matters: In the long haul, experts worry that AI might further cocoon people from the relationships and conversations they need. But in the short term, AI-powered companions, pets and mental health support services are already being drafted to fight the loneliness epidemic.
The big picture: There aren’t enough therapists, counselors and care providers in the United States to support every lonely person, while AI-based services can be scaled to poorly served regions and offered 24/7.
- Three in four Americans say they experience loneliness, and Gallup estimates 44 million are experiencing “significant loneliness."
- Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says the effects can be equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Yes, but: Some mental health experts worry risks from AI tools offering health services without regulatory approval outweigh potential benefits.
On the positive side, advocates point to a list of applications where AI can provide some loneliness relief.
- Virtual therapists can benefit veterans reluctant to open up to a person and people struggling to access in-person therapy in their native language
- AI conversations might be a boon for the 77 percent of Americans who say they want to age in their own homes. Beyond small talk, AI companions can help with fall detection.
- 24/7 support from AI can provide out-of-hours back-up for those already receiving clinical help, such as chat based on existing individual patient notes.
- Rural areas — where 3 in 4 counties lack the cash to expand access to behavioral health services — could also benefit.
AI pets are already a growth industry.
- They've improved since the 1990s Tamagotchi fad and can include realistic programmed personalities and physical features like fur and tails that wag.
- Living pets bring well-established benefits, including reduced loneliness and anxiety for owners, and promoters of AI pets say they offer similar benefits for those who can’t take on the the responsibilities and costs of keeping a pet alive.
- Think people with dementia who cannot feed or walk pets to schedule, or city-dwellers in buildings that ban pets.
- Tom Stevens, CEO of Tombot, a startup providing robot dog companions, says his devices are an alternative to psychotropic medications that “turn seniors into zombies.”
China has blazed the trail for deploying AI against loneliness.
- Since 2019, Xiaoice — Microsoft’s China-focused chatbot — has developed an audience of 660 million users.
- Xiaoice was trained to learn EQ skills before IQ skills, so that users see “her” as a friend. Microsoft admits, “sometimes the line between fact and fantasy blurs. She gets love letters and gifts.”
Other companies in the space include:
- Elliq — pitched as a subscription-based healthy-aging service — mixes small talk with news, messages and logistics support.
- Replika — an American-trained companion — sells itself as a customized AI friend.
- After some Replika users pushed their AI relationships in an erotic direction, the company tried to ban adult content — but recently allowed customers whose accounts predated the rule change to continue their erotic role-play.
Reality check: Mental health care presents life-and-death challenges.
- The American Psychiatric Association estimates more than 10,000 apps claim to provide mental health services, but few are certified by professional bodies or governments.
- AI tools trained on the open internet or released without guardrails have allegedly played a role in at least one suicide.
Generational differences and racial disparities add complexity, with younger people more likely to want to talk through mental health challenges, and older generations more likely to medicate. White communities access mental health services at higher rates.
- Amid declining face-to-face socializing, minors may treat AI as a replacement for developing social skills.
- When Snapchat slotted My AI, a ChatGPT-powered tool, into users' friends list earlier this year, some underage users asked the bot to act as their virtual boyfriend or girlfriend.
What’s next: Look for startups to combine machine learning and behavioral psychology to data-mine our emotions.
- Dr. Nirit Pisano, chief psychology officer at Cognovi Labs, told Axios that helping AI better read how we’re inclined to think and act in certain emotional states opens the door to 24/7 support, greater self-understanding and systems that can nudge us towards useful behaviors or emergency services.
- But a public already wary of ad-driven digital surveillance and biased AI algorithms might think twice before sharing state-of-mind data with profit-driven chatbots.
The bottom line: The faster AI gets deployed as a mental-health stopgap, the sooner we'll discover whether it's boon or bane.
Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo and Ina Fried delve deeper into AI's potential to help and to hurt America's loneliness epidemic.