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Could AI be a solution to loneliness or will it make things worse ?

January 12, 2024 · Comment icon 41 comments
A human hand touching the robotic hand of an artificial intelligence.
How human-like could an AI actually become ? Image Credit: Pixabay / geralt
Three Australian researchers take a look at how artificial intelligence could tackle the problem of loneliness.
ChatGPT has repeatedly made headlines since its release late last year, with various scholars and professionals exploring its potential applications in both work and education settings. However, one area receiving less attention is the tool's usefulness as a conversationalist and - dare we say - as a potential friend.

Some chatbots have left an unsettling impression. Microsoft's Bing chatbot alarmed users earlier this year when it threatened and attempted to blackmail them.

Yet pop culture has long conjured visions of autonomous systems living with us as social companions, whether that's Rosie the robot from The Jetsons, or the super-intelligent AI, Samantha, from the 2013 movie Her. Will we develop similar emotional attachments to new and upcoming chatbots? And is this healthy?

While generative AI itself is relatively new, the fields of belonging and human-computer interaction have been explored reasonably well, with results that may surprise you.

Our latest research shows that, at a time when 1 in 3 Australians are experiencing loneliness, there may be space for AI to fill gaps in our social lives. That's assuming we don't use it to replace people.

Can you make friends with a robot?

As far back as the popularisation of the internet, scholars have been discussing how AI might serve to replace or supplement human relationships.

When social media became popular about a decade later, interest in this space exploded. The 2021 Nobel Prize-winning book Klara and the Sun explores how humans and life-like machines might form meaningful relationships.

And with increasing interest came increasing concern, borne of evidence that belonging (and therefore loneliness) can be impacted by technology use. In some studies, the overuse of technology (gaming, internet, mobile and social media) has been linked to higher social anxiety and loneliness. But other research suggests the effects depend greatly on who is using the technology and how often they use it.

Research has also found some online roleplaying game players seem to experience less loneliness online than in the real world - and that people who feel a sense of belonging on a gaming platform are more likely to continue to use it.

All of this suggests technology use can have a positive impact on loneliness, that it does have the potential to replace human support, and that the more an individuals uses it the more tempting it becomes.

Then again, this evidence is from tools designed with a specific purpose (for instance, a game's purpose is to entertain) and not tools designed to support human connection (such as AI "therapy" tools).

The rise of robot companions
As researchers in the fields of technology, leadership and psychology, we wanted to investigate how ChatGPT might influence people's feelings of loneliness and supportedness. Importantly, does it have a net positive benefit for users' wellbeing and belonging?

To study this, we asked 387 participants about their usage of AI, as well as their general experience of social connection and support.

We found that:
  • participants who used AI more tended to feel more supported by their AI compared to people whose support came mainly from close friends
  • the more a participant used AI, the higher their feeling of social support from the AI was
  • the more a participant felt socially supported by AI, the lower their feeling of support was from close friends and family
  • although not true across the board, on average human social support was the largest predictor of lower loneliness.
AI friends are okay, but you still need people

Overall our results indicate that social support can come from either humans or AI - and that working with AI can indeed help people.

But since human social support was the largest predictor of lower loneliness, it seems likely that underlying feelings of loneliness can only be addressed by human connection. In simple terms, entirely replacing in-person friendships with robot friendships could actually lead to greater loneliness.

Having said that, we also found participants who felt socially supported by AI seemed to experience similar effects on their wellbeing as those supported by humans. This is consistent with the previous research into online gaming mentioned above. So while making friends with AI may not combat loneliness, it can still help us feel connected, which is better than nothing.

The takeaway

Our research suggests social support from AI can be positive, but it doesn't provide all the benefits of social support from other people - especially when it comes to loneliness.

When used in moderation, a relationship with an AI bot could provide positive functional and emotional benefits. But the key is understanding that although it might make you feel supported, it's unlikely to help you build enough of a sense of belonging to stop you from feeling lonely.

So make sure to also get out and make real human connections. These provide an innate sense of belonging that (for now) even the most advanced AI can't match.

Michael Cowling, Associate Professor - Information & Communication Technology (ICT), CQUniversity Australia; Joseph Crawford, Senior Lecturer, Management, University of Tasmania, and Kelly-Ann Allen, Associate Professor, School of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Faculty of Education, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (41)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #32 Posted by fred_mc 3 months ago
Most electronic things go down in price with time. I thought that that would happen also to electronic pets. I'm a bit surprised that that hasn't happened, Sony Aibo is still very expensive.
Comment icon #33 Posted by archm 2 months ago
Depends, if you know that you are talking to a program which isn't really thinking then it is worse. Talking to something that is self aware even a dog it better.
Comment icon #34 Posted by TigerBright19 2 months ago
I've always been alone.  Almost 40 years.  Yet, I've never felt lonely.  I grew up alone, so it was never an issue.  I remember playing the Sims game and I could never understand why the Sim was so depressed when his Socialising bar was low.  It confused the hell out of me and I had no idea what on earth I was supposed to do to get his bar back up again. lol ?    
Comment icon #35 Posted by Horta 2 months ago
There is a whole pantheon of imaginary friends for adults. Many go the extra mile and have an imaginary enemy too (get thee hence Satan!).? An AI would have the advantage of actually existing, so in that way wouldn't be imaginary. These people are late to the party though. For people under a certain age, having an AI best friend already seems ubiquitous. At least they seem to take one everywhere they go and never stop fussing over it. Not sure if it's true love or just infatuation, but I do wish they would stop interacting with it while doing things like driving, or crossing the street. I have... [More]
Comment icon #36 Posted by Horta 2 months ago
One of my greatest pleasure is to be as remote as I can possibly be in some wilderness area, completely alone (from humanity at least). I know most people wouldn't do that because the feeling of being alone and isolated a long way from anywhere is off putting (and because they will have no reception for their best friend). I thoroughly enjoy it.
Comment icon #37 Posted by Bendy Demon 2 months ago
I don't know..I wouldn't mind too much having a AI as a companion so long as it isn't secretly spying on me. If humanoid, someone to take me where I need to go without making up excuses or to have a conversation without having to worry about offending it because of a word I used or a opinion I have. I admit that I am lonely but not in the traditional sense; there are people around me but it is all the same blah-blah-blah and you have to walk on eggshells for fear that someone will take offense at the slightest perceived provocation and react with horrifying viciousness. I would love to be in a... [More]
Comment icon #38 Posted by trevor borocz johnson 2 months ago
Probably....maybe.....if the laws were different on dating websites, actually well refined, that might be a computer helping with loneliness? like if those chat rooms were real? with real laws to them? Dr Bend can you imagine a legal dating website and its laws for us?
Comment icon #39 Posted by simplybill 2 months ago
I don’t think AI will be a solution for loneliness, as much as it will be another distraction from loneliness. It may possibly be a better quality distraction than Facebook, video games and internet browsing, but I doubt that AI in any form will ever replace the importance of social interactions with real people that have the ability to uplift and encourage. As a wise man once said, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”. 
Comment icon #40 Posted by jmccr8 2 months ago
Hi Horta I think a lot of people can't stand themselves which is why they burden others with their presence.
Comment icon #41 Posted by Horta 2 months ago
I think you might be onto something there jmccr8. I get a similar feeling with people who need a radio constantly blaring in the background while they do whatever mundane stuff they do. It gives their mind something to occupy itself with in the background, saves them from being alone with nothing but their own thoughts. There is an old saying that "when we're truly alone, we're rarely in good company". But for people who can get over this, being alone and entirely self reliant at least for a while can be offer great experience in many different ways.

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