AI Advances Could Equip Robots to Counter Human Loneliness

In an era of growing social isolation, artificial intelligence-enhanced companion robots could be the answer to the loneliness epidemic, according to a research report from Auckland, Duke, and Cornell Universities.

Published in the July 12 issue of Science Robotics, the study explores the ethical implications of these companion robots for policy makers, technologists, and clinicians, urging for a collective and rapid establishment of guidelines on trust, engagement, and effectiveness in the real-world.

The research also proposes a unique method of assessing the effectiveness of these robotic companions.

“All the evidence points to having a real friend as the best solution,” stated Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, professor of Psychiatry and Geriatrics at Duke University. “But until society prioritizes social connectedness and eldercare, robots are a solution for the millions of isolated people who have no other solutions.”

Data from the Survey Center on American Life indicates a fourfold increase in the number of Americans lacking close friends since 1990. Such loneliness and social isolation may affect one-third of the global population, leading to serious health issues including obesity, dementia, and even premature death.

For adults finding it challenging to forge new friendships, AI-enabled companion robots might provide an effective solution to combat isolation, especially in the elderly demographic.

“AI presents exciting opportunities to give companion robots greater skills to build social connection,” noted Elizabeth Broadbent, Ph.D., professor of Psychological Medicine at University of Auckland. “But we need to be careful to build in rules to ensure they are moral and trustworthy.”

Companion robots such as ElliQ have already been interacting with humans in thousands of instances, providing simple companionship. Emerging research suggests such robots can reduce stress, loneliness, and support older individuals in maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle at home.

Advancements in AI and large language models like ChatGPT allow the latest generation of robots to foster deeper social connections, engaging in more spontaneous conversations and even simulating the voices of departed loved ones.

A survey by Sermo involving 307 care providers across Europe and the United States revealed a favorable stance towards social robots, with 69% agreeing they could provide companionship, alleviate isolation, and potentially boost mental health. However, quantifying the impact of these robots remains a challenge.

Highlighting the importance of patient-rated outcome measures, the researchers are developing the “Companion Robot Impact Scale” (Co-Bot-I-7), designed to assess the physical health and loneliness impact of companion robots. Early results from this scale hint at the effective role these machines are already playing.

The report concludes, “With the right ethical guidelines, we may be able to build on current work to use robots to create a healthier society.”

The authors of the study include Dr. Doraiswamy, Professor Broadbent, Mark Billinghurst, Ph.D., and Samantha Boardman, M.D. Professor Broadbent and Dr. Doraiswamy have served as advisors to Sermo and technology companies. The Co-Bot-I-7 scale is a joint development of Dr. Doraiswamy, Professor Broadbent, and Dr. Boardman.

The full study, “Enhancing Social Connectedness With Companion Robots Employing AI,” is available in Science Robotics, dated July 12, 2023.

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