Hey, Alexa: Can a robot with AI or your voice assistant help you feel less lonely?

Hey, Alexa: Can a robot with AI or your voice assistant help you feel less lonely?

 

Edward C. Baig November 8, 2019 12:51 ET
You: “Alexa, I’m lonely.”
Amazon Alexa: “Sorry to hear that. Talking to a friend, listening to music or taking a walk might help. I hope you feel better soon.”
Alexa's artificial intelligence-infused heart may be in the right place, but there's only so far it or any AI can go to comfort someone who is alone.
All the same, Alexa’s response raises questions about just what kind of role an AI can play to “cure” loneliness, especially among the elderly. Loneliness has been identified as a leading cause of depression among people who are over 65. 

The promise of AI

We’ve heard for years about the potential of companion robots to keep older people, but really anybody, company. But AI need not take the form of a physical robot. As we communicate more often with Alexa and the Google Assistant, could anyone really blame us for thinking of them, too, as "friends?" 
We're still worlds away, though, from the romanticized view of AI that was portrayed in the 2013 sci-fi film "Her." And, frankly, the Hollywood hype around social robots hasn't been all that great, with them mostly bent on causing our demise.

And their own reality has been rather bleak, mostly focused on their own demise. 
Earlier this year, for example, the company behind the Jibo “social” robot for the home that had not all that long ago graced the cover of Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2017, shut down its servers. Other once-promising robotics companies including Mayfield Robotics (known for the Kuri robot) and Anki (Cozmo) recently met a similar fate.
While robots still aren’t prancing around most living rooms, beyond the occasional Roomba, we are increasingly forming some kind of bond with the AI’s in our smart speakers, phones and other devices – yes, Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.

“Alexa’s personality has helped to create a place for her in the home of millions of customers – and we continue to find ways to evolve her personality to be more helpful and useful for them,” says Toni Reid, Amazon’s vice president for Alexa. “This includes responding to sensitive customer questions or interactions such as 'Alexa, I’m lonely,' 'Alexa, I’m sad,' 'Alexa, I’m depressed,' and so on. As we prepare to respond to these interactions, we are very aware that these are high-stakes answers and have worked closely with experts, such as crisis hotlines, to ensure Alexa’s response is helpful."

But can a machine fill in for a human?

While Reid says “AI can help make life easier – and at times, more delightful – I don’t see AI as a replacement to human relationships.”
Indeed, it seems like a pipe dream to suggest that a machine-based solution, no matter what human traits it picks up or how chatty it gets, can properly fill the void when relationships end or loved ones pass on. 

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