Robots And AI Could Help Address Social Isolation and Loneliness
Mon, April 19, 2021

Robots And AI Could Help Address Social Isolation and Loneliness

Marius Aabel said that social isolation is a problem among older people, but it can also affect people of various ages. / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123rf


In an interview with co-founder and CTO of No Isolation Marius Aabel, he said that social isolation is a problem among older people, but it can also affect people of various ages. Abel's interview was written down by Laila von Alvensleben of Hanno, a digital health designer. 

Eight- or nine-year-old children who have cancer have to spend time away from school. They may see their family but they’re going to miss their friends. When these kids recover, they don’t look forward to going back to school since they don’t know what took place in class while they were away. 

Alarmingly, 20% of children who have been confined in the hospital for more than six months during their childhood will never get a job due to social isolation, and not because of the illness. Since social isolation and loneliness affect individuals of different ages and backgrounds, are robots effective? 

Social Isolation and Loneliness Are Health Issues

In recent years, social isolation “has become a serious public health problem,” said Nicholas Fearn of business news site Forbes. Humans are social beings and it can be harmful if a person is deprived of human interaction. According to a study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, loneliness can be as deadly as obesity and twice as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes each day, cited Fearn. It can be triggered by unemployment, health issues, and loss of mobility. 

Robots Usher Positive Change

But can robots or even AI replace human relationships? Toni Redi, Amazon’s vice president for Alexa, stated that while AI makes our lives easier and more delightful, he doesn’t think it would be a replacement to human relationships. It seems like a pipe dream to suggest that a machine can properly fill an individual’s void when relationships end or loved ones passed away. 

Computer science professor at the University of Southern California Maja Mataric explained that they’re not going to develop robots that take care of people so they can be isolated “in their own little cubes,” which will cause more problems. Instead, machines will be used to “bring people together.” Mataric describes “social robots” as “focused on entertaining rather than having a more measurable purpose.”  

Socially assistive companion robots have a “measurable outcome.” For instance, you might ask yourself: Does the child make more eye contact after interacting with a robot? Or does this elderly person walk more steps after interacting with a robot? Mataric conducted a study where Kiwis, robots that look similar to food-tall owls, were shown to older people. 

The robots reminded them to stand up if they were sitting too long. If they did, the machines would reward them with a joke or a dance. The participants were found to be “more physically active and happy to have the robots around.” But when these were taken away, the participants went back to their old ways. Mataric concluded, “We know these machines can change behavior in a positive way.”  

Robotic Pets

Most people are aware that robots are not living, breathing things, but what if robotics and AI can provide the same kind of companionship you get from a pet? Think of it as a “high-tech variation of a service animal” that does not require you to feed or care for it. Way back in the 1990s, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), a Japanese industrial company, developed a robotic baby seal called Paro. 

Paro is administered to patients in eldercare facilities and hospitals in Japan and Europe. As a “therapeutic robot,” the baby seal was trained to “respond to the way a human stroked it or a new name.” CEO of iRobot Colin Angle believed that robotic pets could eventually become a multi-billion industry. Robot pets can get to “know” their owner and follow them through facial and image recognition technologies. 

However, the robots we have seen thus far are “not necessarily good pets,” Angle stated. He said it’s hard to establish a human connection since they have hard plastic or rubber skin, or even behave in a jerky or unnatural way. 


Paro is a "therapeutic robot" administered to patients in eldercare facilities and hospitals in Japan and Europe. / Photo by: Tekniska museet/Peter Häll via Wikimedia Commons


Robots for Lonely Students and the Elderly

No Isolation developed the AV1 robot, which stands in the classroom and fills in for an absent child. The child then interacts with the robot to catch up with schoolwork or communicate with their friends. The AV1 becomes a child’s eyes, ears, and mouth. When they speak into their phone or tablet, their voice is projected through the robot. 

Meanwhile, Accenture is addressing loneliness among older adults in Sweden. The company is collaborating with Sweden’s largest energy suppliers Stockholm Exergi for an early pilot called Memory Lane. The elderly are invited to narrate their life story to the Google Assistant via a smart speaker to provide companionship and to capture their stories for future generations. Chief creative officer for Accenture Interactive in the Nordic region Adam Kerj said, “We observed (that) the urge to share stories by lonely participants was incredibly strong.”

Robots are helpful in addressing social isolation and loneliness, but developers need to take into consideration ethics and security. We still have a long way to go before robots can truly “replicate” human emotion and interaction. Even so, robots will just augment our lives, not act as a replacement.