Even If AI Can Cure Loneliness — Should It?
Businesses that make and sell products that replicate human connection are serving a deep need, but they may also be changing social norms in ways that can’t be reversed.
Artificial Intelligence and Business Strategy
In collaboration withBCG
Many experts believe augmentation and automation are the shining stars of business uses of AI; their promise of greater productivity has lit up the executive imagination.
In their shadow, however, a growing number of AI applications and devices are helping humans satisfy a basic need to connect with others. In particular, markets are slowly forming around artificially intelligent, emotionally attuned, responsive robots that people can relate to as companions. Certainly, if army veterans can form bonds with drones, many people can form emotional connections with their bots, either in lieu of human alternatives or in addition to them.
Where there is an unfilled human need, there is a business opportunity. Large-scale social problems, like the global loneliness epidemic, are driving demand for robot companions. The AARP estimates that one out of three U.S. adults older than age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. In Britain, researchers estimate that 9 million adults are often or always lonely; one out of three adults over 75 say their feelings of loneliness are out of control. In January 2018, Britain named a loneliness minister after recognizing its serious, multibillion-dollar toll on the U.K. economy. Loneliness is associated with premature death, productivity loss, and various health costs. More than a dozen startups are developing robot home companions. While some are struggling, there is little question that demand for these products exists, and is likely to grow stronger with an aging population.
Eldercare “is rapidly becoming one of the most daunting health care challenges of our day,” says former Harvard Medical School professor William A. Haseltine. An NIH-funded Census Bureau report estimates that by 2050, nearly 17% of the world’s population, or 1.6 billion people, will be at least age 65, double the percentage of today. Many companies are developing robots to provide services to that growing cohort, such as making schedule recommendations, offering medicine reminders, and coordinating care. Although most of these aren’t designed specifically with loneliness in mind, they do provide companionship, which many of the elderly desperately need.
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So technology isn’t just a cause for the loneliness epidemic, as many suggest. It’s also possibly a solution.