Tech wants AI chatbots to help ease loneliness. Experts are skeptical

The problem of loneliness isn't one that tech can solve, experts say

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 21, 2023 4:01PM (EDT)

Person talking to ChatGPT (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/ChatGPT)
Person talking to ChatGPT (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/ChatGPT)

Earlier this month, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness. Loneliness, Murthy warned, is more than just a feeling of being alone. It can adversely affect mental, physical and emotional health. If a person is lonely, they can have a greater risk of developing dementia, a stroke, depression, or anxiety. And it can even lead to a premature death — like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which is why Murthy is interested in solving this problem from a public health perspective.

"Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis," Murthy wrote in the advisory. "If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being."

While Murthy published an 80-page paper suggesting solutions, it's notable — and perhaps not a coincidence — that it's happening at a time when artificial intelligence (AI) is on society's mind as well, in part thanks to the release of ChatGPT, which is a type of AI chatbot called a large language model. But it's not just ChatGPT. A couple weeks ago, Inflection AI released a chatbot named Pi ("personal intelligence"), which was designed to be a "supportive companion assistant." Snapchat also recently released My AI bot, which is meant to be a bot that Snapchat users can talk to regularly. The AI companion bot Replika has been advertised as "the AI companion who cares."

Notably, Murthy's advisory did not include AI companion bots as part of a solution to the loneliness epidemic. But technology companies, and universities, are already investing heavily in it as a solution, which begs the question: Is there any room for AI to combat the loneliness crisis in America?

From a psychological perspective, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," said it's possible that AI bots can "relieve temporary loneliness," but that it would fall short in many ways when compared to the value a real-life human friend can provide.

"No matter how well-developed an AI companion may be, a bot is not a fallible, loving human friend," Manly said. "Bots likely won't interact with you in ways that increase your vulnerability, challenge you, and allow you to form a mutually loving relationship."

Manly said she would compare the role of an AI companion bot to that of an imaginary friend, which can sometimes have a positive place in a person's life. However, there are many limitations.

"Moore said that trying to fix human loneliness with technology won't work because it's not a technological problem to begin with"

Indeed, human friendships can be scary, vulnerable, overwhelming and even unpredictable — but at the same time, they can be extremely rewarding and life-saving. As Lydia Denworth wrote in her book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond, "friendship is an organism that shifts its shape across our life spans according to our abilities and our availability — in other words, according to how much we open ourselves to its possibilities."

What humans get out of friendships depends on what they put in, and it requires both parties to participate and be vulnerable. This is why scientists, like Dr. Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the health effects of loneliness at a molecular level, isn't convinced companion AI bots can be part of the solution to loneliness.

"I'm skeptical that these will be as impactful as people are hoping in part because one of the most powerful components of empathy and compassion for both the person providing it and the person receiving it, is being known by another person and being cared about," Cole said. "And that's inherently impossible with AI. It may know, but it doesn't care about us the way a person would."

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Cole added that scientific research continues to show that in-person interactions are more meaningful than remote ones. For example, Cole and his colleagues conducted a study involving 142 healthy young adults during the COVID-19 social-distancing period. They analyzed the participants' blood samples to investigate whether digital social connections could enhance antiviral immunity, similar to the observed effects of in-person social connectedness on blood analyses. Not surprisingly, the findings did not support this notion. "Digitally mediated social relations do not appear to substantially offset the absence of in-person/offline social connection in the context of immune cell gene regulation," the study concluded.

The reciprocal act of caring for each other, Cole said, is the "secret ingredient of why human beings rule the world." Humans are an intensely social species.

Cat Moore, the director of belonging at the University of Southern California, said that trying to fix human loneliness with technology won't work because it's not a technological problem to begin with.

"I have never had a student come into my office and say, 'I'm so lonely, 'I could really go for a nice robot right now.'"

"Trying to act like if we just get our tech good enough and human like enough, it will solve the problem, is a fundamental mistake in the nature of the problem," Moore said. "So the framework has to be what kind of problem is loneliness, and it's at the root of interpersonal human problems, involving whole human beings that have minds, hearts, bodies, souls, contexts, really relationships — it has to be solved on all of those layers."

As someone who works with college students looking for more fulfilling social connections, she can't imagine a world in which the solution is an AI companion.

"The only thing that works is actual relationships," Moore said. "I have never had a student come into my office and be like, 'I'm so lonely, 'I could really go for a nice robot right now.'"

Moore added she fears that all the investments going into technological solutions to loneliness are going to be misallocated, which could ultimately keep people from seeking out real human connections. Ideally, AI could be used to nudge humans to get in touch with real, flesh and blood humans, Moore said, and that's one way AI could be part of the solution. For example, for some people who are in a very isolated state and incapable of doing basic prosocial activities, an AI bot could help start a conversation with a human. However, one potential drawback is that some people may start to feel safer or more comfortable with a bot, which could prevent them from realizing their full potential.

"If a person isn't careful, they could become more attached to the 'safe' world of bot interactions than the often challenging, but powerfully connective, world of human friendships," Manly said.


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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