Can Technology Address The Loneliness of Humans?

Love, a simple emotion, a feeling that transcends time and space has undergone a sea change through the centuries. It went from a means of convenience and even business collaboration to a no-strings-attached ‘impulsive’ expression, to a socially acceptable construct ‘marriage’ and is still changing as we speak. Pain, despair, jealously are all emotions that have accompanied love. Even loneliness and longing. The former as inseparable as it is from the emotion of love itself, has become something many individuals are experiencing and yet we’re finding it increasingly difficult to describe.

In many ways,, loneliness in today’s time is a contradiction. With the gamut of social media at our beck and call, this emotion shouldn’t even plague us, and yet we’re here facing it across ages. A Michigan State University psychologist study of older adults has found that the use of social technology was linked to better health and low levels of loneliness. Another research contradicts this by showing that young adults were better off spending time outside social media. Technology is therefore altering the way people interact socially, but it is having different effects on different people. Loneliness for example is something technology can easily solve, because of its ability to reach anywhere and anytime. It is also a pressing social concern that is being acknowledged and addressed across the world in different ways and through different digital mediums.

Loneliness isn’t a solitary feeling experienced by a few. Governments are waking up to its debilitating impact on people. The UK government acknowledged this problem and got its first ‘Loneliness Minister’ in 2018. With it for the first time, a head of state PM Theresa May identified this as a pressing problem for the country’s citizens. ‘One in three people in the US are lonely’ says another recent study by Cigna. The Covid-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate it, intensifying loneliness with stay-at-home quarantines and work-from-home orders. Technology was an option earlier to bring people together. Today they are the only alternatives in our fight against loneliness. With new innovations in technology making it easier to design emotional wellness tech products to connect, keep in touch and make connections more tangible, the meaning and form of love have changed yet the emotion still remains the same.

The expression of love as we’ve observed has grown beyond what we had made it out to be, and technology is helping in different innovative ways.

ROBOTICS — Co-existing with robots isn’t new, but we only saw it in the context of work and easing out processes. Robots made for a dystopian world before the pandemic but post it, have increasingly become adopted as human replacements by improving psychological well being for people experiencing isolation. An Israeli startup, Intuition Robotics has created ElliQ, an elderly digital companion that makes appointments, checks on them, analyses user environment keeping them entertained. FDA-certified therapeutic robot PARO, is a Japanese-made baby seal that helps dementia patients sense their user’s environment, get help when required, and recognize voices and words.

CHATBOTS — Love is about connection and sharing, with family or friends too. The noise of the world is overwhelming us with so many stimuli that people often find themselves not being heard. Loneliness is the fallout of a lack of someone to confide in. Chatbots have thus proven very useful for many companies during this period, and have gone beyond just being the first-person responder to issues. Conversational partner Woebot, a CBT-based chatbot developed by Stanford university, monitors user’s moods during chats helping users learn about themselves and take charge of their emotional well being. Similarly Replika helps users create a personal digital companion, continuously learning through text conversations.

IMMERSIVE TECHNOLOGY — Virtual reality is a great way to simulate emotions and feelings, while covering the distance between people especially today. Older adults looking for companionship may love Rendever, a VR platform utilizing neuroscience for socialization, therapy, and cognitive stimulation. Similarly, virtual living room platform Alcove is bringing families across continents and generations to connect together, play games and forge memories

The world of connections we’ve experienced before has changed drastically. Love isn’t lost but has morphed to change its shape and form. Tech innovations are bridging the gap to maintain the same level of connectedness despite the distances, and absence of physical touch.

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This writeup has been co-authored by Charmaine Kenita, about my learnings on love, technology, future challenges, and mapping the way forward.

Thought leader, Consultant, Observer , Realtor, Pilot , Banker, Educationist, Reader & Entrepreneur.