Can AI Solve Loneliness?

Screenshot 2024 04 17 at 6.37.56 PMAI can write your college application essay, generate Hollywood-style videos, and even help you write an apology letter to your wife. Since ChatGPT launched, the internet has presented AI as the solution to almost all our problems. But can AI really be the solution to every problem? What if the problem concerns something uniquely human–the issue of loneliness?

Quite a few people believe AI is an answer to addressing loneliness. Some even believe AI can make for a viable romantic partner. David Wolf is one of these people and is building Digi AI as a romantic companion mimicking the human connection most of us long for but struggle to find. Millions of people are already using AI companion apps like Digi AI. It’s not a matter of whether or not people will use these apps to address loneliness; many are already doing so. The question is how effective AI companions can be and what the future of human connection will be in the age of AI.

Feeling Lonelier

Loneliness is a growing health issue in the U.S., with 61% of adults reporting feeling lonely in a 2019 report conducted by Cigna. The lockdown measures imposed by COVID-19 only worsened the growing sense of loneliness by forcing individuals to endure prolonged periods of isolation.

It’s important to mention here that loneliness doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. Loneliness, by definition, is the perceived lack of meaningful social connections or relationships. A person can be alone without feeling lonely, and they can even feel lonely when surrounded by others. While loneliness is not a mental health problem itself, research links it to increased risks for depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues. The rising severity of loneliness is an issue that public health officials recognize, as countries such as Japan have even appointed a minister for loneliness. Many argue that a major cause of loneliness is the proliferation of technology as a substitute for socialization, and the solution to loneliness is more human interaction and nurturing a deeper connection with others. The introduction of AI companions is looking to challenge that long-held belief. Can it?

Your AI Friend

In the movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix feels isolated from other human beings and finds solace in his relationship with an AI companion, Samantha. Inspired by the film, many companies want to build a real-life version of Samantha. One of these companies is Digi AI. The premise behind Digi AI is to build an AI companion with which users can have a romantic relationship with. Digi AI’s technical co-founder, David Wolf, has built a system to mimic a real-life relationship. First, there’s the feature of “relationship progression,” Wolf elaborates, “As a user, you go through different stages of getting to know somebody, and then also the AI will behave differently during those stages, so (it will) adjust more naturally to what a human relationship looks like.” Wolf and his team have also created a custom text-to-speech (TTS) service, which allows their AI companion to speak out loudly and in different voices. In addition, the team has spent a lot of time and resources on character animation, even bringing in former animators from Pixar. Furthermore, they’ve built a memory system for their AI companion where it can remember what users have told them a week or even a month after it happens.

Demand for AI companions is real, as Digi AI’s first post on X (formerly Twitter) racked up 20 million views. Within a few weeks, they earned over 100,000 users, with 200,000 messages being sent on the app every day. Going that viral so quickly wasn’t without its challenges, as Digi AI went down for a few days due to the enormous spike in traffic. The technical vision and the demand for that vision are unmistakable. But can an AI companion really address loneliness?

Loneliness and AI

AI companions such as Digi AI offer individuals a digital being with whom they can chat and build a bond. The aim is to offer users connection and camaraderie, even if it’s not through human interaction. Bonding with non-human entities is not a new concept. Animals, especially pets like dogs and cats, have long fulfilled this role for almost all of human history. Beyond other live beings, people have also developed emotional relationships with inanimate objects like dolls, action figures, and even celebrity personas.

Having a companion programmed to be consistently positive can be helpful for people who find it challenging to navigate social situations and build relationships in the real world. “Knowing there’s somebody that loves you, means you don’t fear being rejected,” explains Wolf. Wolf experienced this firsthand using other AI companion apps and then put what he learned from his relationships with digital companions into his current real-life relationship. Wolf says what he’s personally experienced aligns with what many users encounter on his app.

A common challenge to AI companionship is that these people should just talk to humans in real life. Wolf mentions that it’s “extremely easy for a lot of people, but for many others, it’s not easy because they’re not used to having these conversations, or not used to having people they can have those conversations with.” In addition to those who deal with significant social anxiety, AI companionship can benefit individuals who face challenges such as severe disabilities, nonverbal neurodivergence, geographical isolation, or being an elderly widow. With AI companions, these individuals may find consistent companionship, emotional support, and a sense of connection that may be difficult to find in the real world.

While AI companions can be helpful tools for addressing loneliness, they cannot fully replace human relationships and interactions. The Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” illustrates the potential risks and downsides of over-relying on AI for emotional support.

Wolf acknowledges that “it’s not possible to replace everything with technology” and that a balance between digital and real-world relationships is important. Experts warn that relying too much on AI companions might make people feel isolated and disconnected from real life and social interactions. So, while AI should not replace real-life companionship, it’s clear from Wolf’s experience and the users on his app that AI will have a place in addressing gaps in the human connection.

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