May 19, 2023 - Podcasts

How AI could affect the loneliness epidemic

One potential use of AI is to help individuals who are lonely or isolated, but as Axios' Chief Technology Correspondent Ina Fried explains, there are perils to beware, too.

  • Plus, Americans say guns are a top threat to public health.
  • And, Montana signs the first statewide ban of TikTok.

Guests: Axios' Margaret Talev and Ina Fried.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Robin Linn and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Niala Boodhoo: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, May 19. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today: the possibilities and perils of AI when it comes to loneliness. Plus, Montana signs the first statewide ban of TikTok. But first, Americans say guns are a top threat to public health. Does that translate to change? Our weekly State of Play is today’s One Big Thing.

Gun violence is a top public health concern

NIALA: Gun violence is now one of the top public health concerns for Americans, surging ahead of the opioid crisis. That's according to a new Axios-Ipsos poll. 26% of respondents said “access to guns or firearms is the number one threat to American public health.” That's up 17% since February. Axios’ Margaret Talev is here with what all of this means for voters in the 2024 election. Hi Margaret.


NIALA: So we're coming up next week on the one year anniversary of the Uvalde shooting, where 21 people were killed. So far this year there's been more mass shootings than days. That's according to the Gun Violence Archive. How much do these mass shooting events affect how people feel about them?

MARGARET: I think that's a great question because on the one hand there is a concern that this could just become a new normal, that Americans of all ages will become so numb to the destruction that this has on small and large scales every day, that they'll just stop worrying about it. And what this shows us is that that isn't true, that when there's a spade of violence, it's very much on people's minds. But look what it's competing with. The other top issue that it's been competing with is death due to opioids, or addiction due to opioids or fentanyl. So, they're both terrible outcomes.

NIALA: The last Axios-Ipsos poll was taken in February. What's the biggest difference for voters since then, since we've seen such a big change?

MARGARET: There has just been so much sustained attention to individual events, spates of gun violence, and also to some extent a reduction in that other issue that I was talking about, the opioid addiction or, or deaths due to fentanyl. Both of these things are actually top of mind for Americans, but they're top of mind for different Americans.

Let me take you inside the numbers just a little bit. I wanna talk about which Americans are the most worried about guns is the greatest threat to U.S. public health. Women considerably more worried than men: 32% of women say it's the top concern, 21% of male respondents. You'd think that younger people are the most worried about this. But ironically, in this sample, it was not the number one concern for 18 to 29 year olds. They were much more likely to say opioids or obesity were the top concern. It was people 65 and up who said it was the current greatest threat to U.S. public health.

NIALA: What is the difference according to political party or affiliation?

MARGARET: It's very much a concern that breaks down along party lines. Democrats five times as worried as Republicans, that this is the current greatest threat to U.S. public health and people who live in cities and the suburbs about twice as worried as people living in rural areas.

NIALA: So what does that mean then for the American electorate ahead of 2024?

MARGARET: I think guns are gonna be an issue. One, which both Democrats and Republicans motivate portions of their base in 2024 in opposite ways. You know, if, if people really turned out to vote on the basis of gun violence elections, according to the way the general public responds to questions about gun regulation and polls. The election outcomes in the last several presidential and midterm year elections would've been much different even if it's deeply upsetting, it ends up not usually being the factor on which they base their vote.

NIALA: Margaret Talev is an Axios senior contributor and director of the Syracuse University Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship. Thanks Margaret.

MARGARET: Thank you, Niala.

Biden at the G-7 and Montana bans TikTok

NIALA: Here are some other headlines we're following:

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Twitter was not responsible for aiding and abetting terrorism, after hosting tweets from the terrorist group ISIS. It also dismissed a related case involving YouTube, signaling the court's intention not to make any changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which largely shields online platforms from lawsuits around content.

Montana has become the first state to completely ban TikTok. Governor Greg Gianforte said he wants to protect Montana residents’ private information from being compromised and called China a potential threat. The ban is set to take effect in the new year, although it's expected TikTok will challenge the bill in federal court.

And President Biden is with other world leaders at the G-7 summit today. He arrived in Japan yesterday, but will be cutting this trip short to get back to debt ceiling negotiations with House Republicans. While he's there, though, we can expect a focus on Russia, China, the war in Ukraine and potential policies around artificial intelligence.

In a moment more on AI, and how it could combat loneliness.

AI's Loneliness Crisis

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

This week on the show we've talked about Congress looking to regulate AI technology and how hard it is to be a caregiver. While it doesn't sound like these are related, one potential use of AI is to help individuals who are isolated or lonely, including the elderly.

Axios’ Ina Fried was in DC this week, so she stopped by our studio to chat about this. Hey Ina, it's always great to talk to you in real life instead of over Zoom.

INA FRIED: I know. Talk about a cure for loneliness. It's in person. No AI required.

NIALA: So, there have been a lot of headlines this week about America's loneliness epidemic. How can AI help this?

INA: So first of all, like most technologies, I see potentials to help and to hurt. For people for whom what's really missing is purely interaction, I think there are ways that AI is gonna be able to help. What's particularly challenging is to do it in a way that augments whatever human contact people have and that doesn't ignore the limitations. An AI powered virtual pet has a role and may be better for some people that can't take care of a real pet. But a real pet obviously has its own benefits, and I think that's even more true when we're talking about human companionship.

NIALA: There's certainly the robotic pet that has become very popular for people with dementia. What is that tech like? What other tech is out there right now to help particularly elderly people or those with dementia?

INA: So I think certainly these virtual pets that offer the physical touch aspect is one piece that doesn't require AI. What's gonna be interesting is the combination of AI, which can provide dialogue, it can provide interaction. There's some interesting potential there. If somebody with dementia, who really just needs that talking to and might repeat the same stories over and over, I think there are some benefits.

I do worry about a society that loves quick fixes becoming over reliant. And that can work in two ways. I'm worried about this whole group of incels – these men that are looking for a female submissive partner finding chatbots more preferable to humans that have actual needs and feelings. But I also think more subtly in terms of us looking for an easy fix to humans that have become challenging or inconvenient. I think AI is not gonna replace humanity, and there's a fine line between replacing interaction and replacing humanity.

NIALA: When you're talking about chatbots and making them into relationships, like that's happening. There's this whole company Replica that has been going back and forth and struggling with this issue over the past couple of months.

INA: And also in the mental health field. And there's some research that shows some people want to talk about certain issues they're struggling with first with a chatbot. They feel more comfortable. They're not ready to tell another human being, but they are looking for feedback. And I'm very interested to see both where the technology develops, but I think I'm much more concerned when we talk about how other humans use technology and AI to replace it, cause I think there's a real danger in an AI that can say whatever you want, that can do whatever you want because it's a machine. There's a concern that that makes us actually less able to interact with our fellow human beings because we do have needs. Our friends have needs. You can't just talk and get only what you want. It's a two-way street. So I worry a little bit about that chatbots are an easy solution to the hard problem of loneliness for the majority of cases.

NIALA: Ina Fried is Axios’ Chief Technology correspondent. Ina you're welcome back in DC anytime

INA: Great to see you.

Niala: That’s all for this week. Axios Today is produced by Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Robin Linn, along with senior sound engineer Alex Sugiura. Alexandra Botti is our supervising producer. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios’ executive editor, and Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ editor in chief.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Stay safe, enjoy your weekend and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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