Loneliness and the role of conversational AI companions

Could AI help to reduce loneliness in society? The jury is still out. But there are encouraging signs that it can. Here's why.

August 5, 2021
Loneliness and the role of conversational AI companions

It’s likely that we all know how loneliness feels to some degree. But it’s unlikely we’re all fully aware of just how complex the subject can really be.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention notes that even our casual understanding of loneliness can be fraught with nuance. Loneliness can be a result of poor social contact, but not always. It can be from a lack of human touch, but not always. Or from a feeling that no one understands you, but not always.

If we struggle to define it and understand it, how can we even begin to reduce the impact loneliness can have? Well, we need to talk about it, and we need to think about how we can use every possible tool at our disposal to help people have conversations.

A modern approach can involve AI companions to bolster existing support systems. And while conversational AI and digital humans aren’t by any means a cure for loneliness – nor a replacement for real human contact – we would like to share some research on how these technologies can help with some of these issues some of the time.

But first, we need to understand just how much of an impact loneliness can have.

The health impact of loneliness is staggering

You’re probably aware that ongoing loneliness can have a damaging effect. But it’s easy to underestimate how damaging it can be on a person’s mental AND physical health.

The CDC acknowledges that, while hard to measure, many adults over the age of 50 have been isolated in a manner that negatively impacts their health – even before the pandemic.

In its summary, the CDC links sustained isolation with a greater chance of developing dementia, heart disease or having a stroke. To really put it into perspective, the study found that loneliness is a health risk on par with “smoking, obesity and physical inactivity”. To quantify how damaging it may be, loneliness can have a negative health impact similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

This is of course on top of some of the mental health issues people already associate with loneliness, such as an increased susceptibility to depression and anxiety.

The statistics are certainly distressing, especially since they’re connecting loneliness with severe long-term and chronic health impacts. So the next focus has to be how widespread loneliness is in society today – and particularly before the pandemic, to give us a barometer on what tomorrow will look like. The answer may also surprise you.

How many people suffer from loneliness?

Loneliness and social isolation rates 2021

Loneliness and social isolation are two problems exacerbated by the pandemic – but COVID-19 was by no means the source of the problem.

CDC figures from early 2019 show that more than one-third of adults suffered from loneliness, rising to almost half of those aged 65 and over. This could be considered our baseline for loneliness in the population.

Today, some 73% of people say they feel loneliness on a scale ranging from occasional loneliness (37%) to severe loneliness suffered frequently or almost all of the time (36%).

Of course, these are somewhat conservative numbers, given that many people may, by nature, hide their symptoms and feelings of loneliness to others. Opening up to receiving help remains a huge barrier to both diagnosis and treatment.

What is the cost of loneliness?

The health impact of loneliness and social isolation healthcare

To the individual, the cost of suffering prolonged loneliness is dramatic, as we’ve seen above. But it’s also a problem for our healthcare system as a whole.

Directly, it can cause chronic physical and mental health issues that need treatment. According to Harvard, loneliness has also been linked with increased rates of substance abuse and domestic abuse.

A unique burden is also the added time pressure placed on general practitioners. GPs are often the first port of call for lonely elderly people. Three-quarters say they see up to five patients a day suffering from loneliness. An unfortunate 4% of GPs see more than 10 lonely people a day in their practices.

These are worrying statistics on their own, compounded by the fact that only 13% of surveyed GPs feel confident in helping a lonely patient.

To put all this into dollar terms, even before the pandemic, around $6.7 billion in US annual federal spending was attributable to social isolation among these older demographics. One can only imagine the scale of the problem since the turn of the decade. And that’s not to mention the ongoing effects today’s generations will carry with them throughout their lives.

It’s clear that given the large amounts of social isolation the world has gone through, we need solutions. And while no single solution will clear the massive hurdle of loneliness in one glorious leap, we can take smaller strides in the right direction.

What AI companions could do to help

Loneliness is often caused or compounded by having reduced social interactions. Nothing is better than speaking to a friend or family member to ease the sense of loneliness. But that’s not always possible.

Some 28% of older adults live by themselves. And while programs like the CareMore Health Togetherness initiative have been designed to provide weekly phone calls and home visits, technology can be a better source of support than it is today. Automated technologies in particular can be especially functional when our human resources can’t keep up with demand.

Conversational AI is growing in sophistication, to the point where it can increasingly fill the gaps and help people who just need someone to talk to. Think Siri or Alexa, but tailored to offer long, open-ended conversations about various topics.

Digital humans then add the human layer, injecting humanity into AI. Digital human AI companions show emotional range – empathy, warmth, friendliness, happiness – through their voice and expressions. Those looking for someone to talk to receive a more human-like interaction to help stave off feelings of loneliness.

While it can never replace human interaction, digital humans can fill gaps between periods of human interaction – when a care worker or family member visits an elderly person, for instance. And there are other benefits of AI conversation in healthcare settings too.

The benefits of AI companions in combating loneliness

1. Accessibility and availability

Some of the advantages of using digital humans to fight against loneliness come in their ability to be available whenever someone is in need.

A care worker, friend or family may not be available at 2am, but digital technologies can be, and at a moment’s notice. They also have the ability to help many people at once, meeting demand when real people can’t.

Digital humans benefit from being a more natural interface. Some elderley people, for instance, struggle with modern technology. Interfacing with a digital human is much the same as with a real person; users simply have to speak and listen.

The ability for a digital human to speak in over 70 languages is also a benefit. The CDC explains that immigrant populations are often more susceptible to loneliness because they tend to have fewer nearby social ties. A conversational AI that can talk to people in their language is better for getting information across and building an emotional connection. As historian Sir Michael Howard neatly put it: “a common language is the most obvious binding element in any society”.

We’ve covered more about multilingual digital humans and conversational AI (particularly in customer service) in the blog post below, should you wish to unpack the topic.

Multilingual customer service CTA

2. Trust and openness

Virtual AI companions are tools that allow people to open up and discuss sensitive topics. In fact, simply giving an AI a face can bring a host of benefits, as UneeQ’s AI Architect, Piers Smith, explains in the article below.

This is a valuable consideration in cases where people feel lonely not because they don’t have an opportunity to speak to someone, but because they don’t want to disclose things to another real person.

A University of Southern California (USC) study found that soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are much more likely to divulge their symptoms to a virtual therapist. The veterans in the study were given a safe place to express themselves, and the virtual assistant, Ellie, identified more signs of PTSD than even anonymous forms.

People know digital humans won’t judge them, building trust that the AI is on their side.

The reason why this phenomenon happens may lie in another study, which found people will readily form a “therapeutic alliance” with a virtual nurse – a relationship therapists and patients have.

In the study, patients expressed a deeper relationship with the digital human nurse by:

  • Using close forms of greeting and goodbye
  • Expressing happiness to see the nurse
  • Using compliments
  • Engaging in social chat
  • And expressing a desire to work together and speak with the nurse again
Why give AI a face? | UneeQ digital humans blog

3. AI avatar companion use cases

The use cases of AI companions are also quite varied:

  • They can be used to triage patients, interacting and hopefully satisfying the need for conversation in lonely people.
  • They can offer curated advice on how to engage in the community, reach out to others and combat loneliness directly.
  • They can offer medical tips on things like diet, exercise, medication and sleep, to improve some of the health conditions loneliness and social isolation can affect.
  • Or they can just chat – seeing, hearing and listening to the user.

To reiterate, we’re certainly not saying using chatbot companions for loneliness or providing access to digital humans will solve the problem alone. But they are emerging ways to approach a long-standing problem with human-centric design at the very heart.

Speak with an AI companion

Anyone wishing to get an idea of the potential for digital humans to create AI companionship, you have a few options.

Our Digital Einstein experience illustrates the way chatbot companions can be evolved into lifelike recreations of history’s most charismatic characters, reflecting their mannerisms and allowing people to become immersed in the experience. You can speak to Digital Einstein about his life’s work and research, or take one of his daily quizzes and see how your knowledge matches up.

Another of our digital humans, Sophie, was trained to answer common questions during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We used live databases from CDC and the World Health Organization to turn her into a free public health advisor that could help people stay safe and provide reassuring information in a time of crisis.

Today, Sophie is powered by GPT-3, allowing her to have more open-ended conversations about virtually anything.

And, of course, if you have any questions about using digital human technology to create AI companions, our team is on hand and ready to help.

Please note: These resources are open to all, but are designed to be showcases of digital human technology – not medical assistants capable of giving health advice or assistance. If you are feeling lonely, depressed or otherwise mentally or physically unwell, we encourage you to seek medical advice from a professional as a primary point of care.