17 September 2020

Tech Perspective #17: Can robots (and AI) keep us company?


Few years ago, the press and the internet have been flooded with a sinister term: “the loneliness epidemic”. Even though the topic was met with rather mixed response, with the majority disregarding it as another example of keyhole journalism, it can no longer be ignored.

The loneliness and social isolation become one of the most serious, as well as most rapidly progressing issues. According to a recent report by Cigna Insurance, more than 60% of Americans feel lonely, left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship; there has been a 13% rise in loneliness since the 2018 report.

Aging societies, social estrangement, social exclusion, hikikomori… There are many reasons causing this unsettling phenomenon to grow. And what about solutions?

Can technology, despite being constantly blamed for social isolation, be an actual solution for this problem?

Robot Companions

Even though Hollywood films present robots as either a doomsday device, or a source of even more desperate loneliness, the existing robots don’t seem to have evil intent. Quite opposite; they can make great companions; more like C3PO than Ultron.

WoeBot- A Therapeutic Chatbot

One of the most fascinating available chatbots is a therapeutic chatbot called WoeBot. WoeBot was created by Alison Darcy, a clinical research psychologist at Stanford University, to support people suffering from depression.

The chatbot uses cognitive behavioural therapy, or C.B.T. In this form of therapy, a therapist, or in this case, a bot, teaches patients simple techniques designed to help them break negative patterns of thinking.

As one of the users said: “Woebot felt like a real person that showed concern”. With its upbeat and supportive attitude, WoeBot can successfully lower and alleviate depression and anxiety incidents.

Mitsuku- World’s Best Conversational Chatbot

Mitsuku, or Kuki to her close friends, is a five-time winner of the Loebner Prize Turing Test and, according to Google AI Research, the world’s best conversational chatbot.

Being an AI solution, Mitsuku relies on machine learning to improve her speech and perfect conversational style.

As Steve Worswick, senior AI designer at Pandorabots, maker of Mitsuku, says “(she) doesn’t pretend to be able to replace a real person, but she’s always available if anyone needs her, instead of talking to the four walls”.

Even though Mitsuku, obviously, is not a real person, she has a personality of her own and certain level of empathy. She engages in conversations and shows understanding and relatability. She even cracks jokes.

Paro- The Cutest Medical Device

There’s an extensive research suggesting that interacting with social robots can improve one’s wellbeing and reduce depression and loneliness.

The most-known example of social robots used in nursing homes is Paro. Paro is designed to look like a baby harp seal. Being extremely adorable, it’s also classified as a medical device that can alleviate stress and keep patients’ company.

Even though it looks just like an ordinary plush toy, it can learn to behave in the way its user prefers by remembering the actions that resulted in a positive reaction and repeating them.

Paro is considered a perfect companion for older adults, especially those suffering from dementia.

The Cure for Loneliness?

Even though the topic of robots as companions raises many eyebrows, as well as ethical concerns, therapeutic and social robots seem to perform their job well.

However, with human contact slowly becoming a luxury good, we need to ask ourselves a valid question; are robots really enough? Or is it just a way of sweeping the problem of social isolation under the carpet?

And, as a last piece of advice; maybe don’t rely on robot’s company alone? After all, you probably don’t want to share the fate of Theodore from “Her”.

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Marcin Bartoszuk
Chief Operating Officer

With Microsoft technologies related since 2005. He graduated from the Computer Science Faculty of the Bialystok University of Technology where he was the leader of the .NET Group and the Microsoft Student Partner. Four times finalist of the national stage of the Imagine Cup competition, and later the mentor and the jury member of the contest. Co-founder of the Bialystok .NET Group. He lectured .NET development at the Bialystok University of Technology. Microsoft MVP in the Client Application Development category in 2008-2010, when he actively participated in the IT community. Constant new technology enthusiast and IT consultant.