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AI and Loneliness

by | 22nd October 2017

Within the next 25 years Artificial Intelligence will revolutionise the entire human experience according to Peter Diamandis. In terms of mental health, common mental disorders (CMD’s) could well be ‘treated’ with the use of AI. This article proposes AI as a treatment for Loneliness – one of many CMD’s that could be treated in the same way, with the fast and direct route of technology. We already know that there is an epidemic of loneliness. This is due to an increase in three areas: Life Expectancy – more elderly people living alone; Lone Dwelling & Single People – more adults living alone; and Pre & Post Millenials – more young people experiencing isolation.

Loneliness Kills

Loneliness is as harmful to our health as smoking, and increases the odds of an early death by 26%. When wellbeing goes down, depressive symptoms and likeliness to develop mental health disorders goes up. This includes stress, anxiety, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, and even suicide.

According to Age UK, a ‘high degree’ of loneliness makes a person twice as likely to develop Alzheimers. The brain goes into self-preservation mode: if you aren’t using it much via interaction, it shuts down and therefore alertness decreases.

Health issues can make us homebound, and being homebound in itself, choice or not, can potentially create further mental illness.

Mindset

With so many studies on Loneliness, you’d think somebody might have tried to solve this problem with technology. Unfortunately, I discovered that the general consensus seems to be that technology exacerbates it, with one study even proposing a trial of steroids as a treatment! I can understand the view that technology can leave a person feeling even more lonely: that having connected with something non-human temporarily, and then returning to loneliness, can make a person feel worse. But this doesn’t have to be the case. All that is needed is a slight change in Mindset. An obstacle was identified: ‘(evil) technology makes people even more lonely!’ But, we needn’t leave it here, give up so to speak. An obstacle presents an opportunity – how might we use technology to work in our favour? How can we use technology to solve the immense and increasing problem of isolation and loneliness?

Statistics & Prevalence

Young People/Millenials: 18-34yr olds are more likely: to feel lonely often, worry about feeling alone, and feel depressed because of loneliness according to the Mental Health Foundation (2010). In communication, lonely people prematurely withdraw – don’t know how to develop conversation, they have less ability to pick up signals and therefore miss opportunities. They can develop trust issues, even paranoia and hostility, as a result becoming less trustful – which is conveyed in their expression. The relational weaknesses of Millenials in one-to-one communication can also lead to feelings of inner loneliness & isolation.

Lone Dwellers/Singletons: A Prevalence Map showed an increase in non-married adults & one-person households (Sheffield University) and the National Office for statistics state that British people are less likely to have: strong friendships, know their neighbours, and not have anyone to rely on in a crisis. 63% of widowed, separated, divorced adults aged 52+ feel lonely often, with a higher percentage in women (Beaumont 2013); and lonely women are ‘hungrier’! according to Science Direct (Hormones & Behaviour), which in turn can lead to obesity and health issues. When alone too much, a person literally ‘turns’ on themselves in some way. It becomes an unhealthy ‘inward’ focus rather than outward.

Elderly: Over half (51%) of all people aged 75+ will live alone (Campaign to End Loneliness). By 2033 there will have been an increase in older people living alone: 44% aged 64-74, 38% aged 75-85, 145% aged 85+. Over 1 million older people say they are always/often lonely, and a girl born today has a 50% chance of living to 100 (Age UK).

Prevalence: There is a prevalence in decreased contact with others, for many different reasons, and as a result isolation has increased. More adults are living alone and more are single. In addition, more are working from home as work spaces are gradually changing from hot desking to remote and virtual spaces. There is an increase in self-employed people and entrepreneurs, which takes people away from the culture and community of a workplace. As a result, there is less opportunity for relationships and connection. Interestingly I have also noticed a rise in nomadic lifestyles, another kind of isolation. It is also a known fact that some elderly people only see another human being once a week or even once a month. It’s important to add here that whilst loneliness is often circumstantial, it is also a choice. Plenty of adults and elderly people choose to be a lone. But it doesn’t mean that they won’t suffer from loneliness.

Economic Benefit

According to Knapp & colleagues, it seems clear that addressing Loneliness has economic benefit, certainly in terms of mental and health services: Befriending reaped £300 in value, at a cost of £80, and Community Navigators had economic benefit of £900 per person per year. With group interventions, the health service savings were estimated at £943 euros saved per person, at a cost of 62 euros per group intervention.

More detailed analysis of cost benefits needs to be done with the use of an AI trial, or an AI solution implemented and the use there-of, measured.

An AI Solution

Not to diminish the validity of existing attempts, but these solutions for loneliness have seemed rather incidental and certainly not greatly technological: helplines, charity services, befriending networks. All with good will of course. But we don’t have to hold onto the view that ‘it has to be human to human contact’ and everything else is second best. Human contact is just one option. AI can not only be an effective alleviation tool, it could even be therapeutic and aid personal growth and developmental. It is a known fact that Radio’s, TV’s and Pets are actual effective and relied upon sources for those alone, and AI is simply a step up from this. An exponential model is currently being developed and investors are invited to collaborate.

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