Robots Are No Substitute For A Social Life
A growing industry is offering artificial companionship. It’s a hollow promise.
It’s ironic that in a world of over eight billion people, loneliness is epidemic. In the United States alone, an astonishing 47 percent of people “often feel alone, left out and lacking meaningful connection with others.” 27 percent of Americans rarely or never feel that they have someone in their life who truly understands them. 43 percent sometimes or always believe that their existing relationships are not meaningful and don’t relieve their feelings of loneliness, and only 53 percent report that they have daily meaningful social interactions. Contrary to popular belief, young people ages eighteen through twenty-two are the loneliest of all.
Far from being a benign condition, feeling alone is toxic to our physical, emotional, and even economic well-being. It has a direct impact on the body, flooding it with stress hormones and impairing the immune system. People who are lonely are more at risk of a wide range of lethal diseases, including heart disease and strokes, cancer, infections, autoimmune diseases, and even dementia. The psychological effects can be devastating, causing anxiety and depression, and experts believe it is one of the main causes of suicide. Human beings are just not made to be alone. We’re wired to be intimately connected with others, and it’s literally a matter of survival.
Loneliness even sets us up for a downward emotional spiral that begets more loneliness. According to University of Chicago social psychologist John Cacioppo, lonely people’s brains go on high alert for what they perceive to be social threats. They become hypersensitive to feelings of rejection, which they often perceive even when no rejection is intended. They tend to rate their social interactions more negatively, and this causes them to withdraw deeper into isolation. They form more negative impressions of the people they meet, reducing the chance of human connection, and their painful feelings become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Although loneliness is a problem in numerous countries, the Japanese know more about it than many societies. Caught in a vicious cycle of declining birth rates, longer lives, brutally long work hours, and a decline in marriages and relationships, there’s even a word for people dying alone in their homes and not being discovered for months or years. The word is kodokushi, and it’s something that lonely elderly people, especially, dread.
One poignant story is that of a 70-year-old man who, while riding a Japanese bullet train, died in his seat and went unnoticed for several days despite being surrounded by people. Author Alex Hacillo observed, “Trapped in a bizarre, worldly purgatory, endlessly ferried from one bland municipal station to another, his final resting place was an untended, anonymous grave in a state cemetery.” In Tokyo, the largest city in the world, thousands of commuters came and went, and failed to notice the solitary man slumped in his seat.
It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of young people, known as hikikomori, live as lonely shut-ins in their parents’ houses. It’s not uncommon for groups of them to meet online and to organize group suicides in the so-called Sea of Trees, a thick forest located at the foot of Mount Fuji. Unable to find hope of ever forming relationships, their last act is a desperate outreach for some type of human sharing, even if it’s a last act of despair.
To cope with the loneliness epidemic, Japanese society has sought out some strange-sounding solutions. At least ten Japanese companies allow people to rent actors to play friends and family members, with whom to chat, go to movies and events, and to add attendance at weddings and funerals. Just having someone pretend to care for them for a day (at a cost of 28 to 48 dollars an hour, plus expenses) gives them temporary respite from their loneliness while letting them avoid the challenges and responsibilities of having real friends and relatives.
One significant Japanese phenomenon is lonely men having virtual girlfriends through a Nintendo game called Love Plus. The game features three virtual girlfriends a player can choose from for an emotional connection. By using a stylus, they can tap on a touch screen, and the beautiful, big-eyed girlfriends can kiss, hold hands, send flirtatious text messages, and even get mad if they feel ignored. Unlike real girlfriends, they’re at the beck and call of players twenty-four hours a day. The typical user of the popular game is a single man in his thirties or forties who has given up on finding real love.
Some of these “relationships” have lasted for years and, contrary to expectation, the choice of a girlfriend is not necessarily based on looks. Loulou d’Aki, a Swedish photographer who has profiled various users of Love Plus, asked players what they were looking for in a woman. “I thought they would tell me all these physical things like, ‘she has to look like this,’ but nobody said anything like that,” she says. “They wanted someone who accepted them as they were.”
It should come as no surprise that Japan is on the leading edge of using robot companions to battle loneliness and isolation. One of the first groups to enjoy interacting with robots is the elderly, and the government of Japan is actively promoting eldercare robots as a partial solution to its caregiver shortage. Because of the rapid aging of its population, the nation will need thousands more senior care workers by 2025, a need that is not currently being filled through traditional channels. It’s estimated that by that year, there will be seven million people suffering from dementia. Of special concern for those with dementia is the possibility of social isolation, which can lead to rapid deterioration.
But unlike the perpetual feedback loop of holographic relationships, eldercare robots are being designed to actually promote the social interaction that slows the advance of dementia.
Shin-tomi Nursing Home, located in the heart of Tokyo, utilizes twenty robot models of differing sizes, appearances, and abilities to provide various services for its residents. They resemble furry animals, children, adult humanoids, and some, like the Tree, are simply utilitarian, guiding and coaching those who have trouble walking. The robot Pepper leads Shin-tomi residents in singing, conversations, and exercise. Some of the robots, such as Aibo, the robotic dog, and Paro, the furry baby seal, fill a role similar to that of an emotional support animal. When petted, Paro turns its head, blinks, purrs, and emits recorded sounds of a real Canadian harp seal. Paro is one of the most popular robots at nursing homes.
When interviewed, one Shin-tomi resident said, “When I first petted it, it moved in such a cute way. It really seemed like it was alive. Once I touched it, I couldn’t let go.”
A number of studies analyzing the use of social robots in nursing homes suggest that the robots actually lead to greater social engagement among users. One Shin-tomi resident, following an exercise session with Pepper, said, “These robots are wonderful. More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun.” In addition to providing a conversation partner, social robots do seem to prompt more interaction among nursing home residents by not only loosening up inhibitions but by giving them something to talk about.
But while there may be some social benefits, there is a dark side to artificial companionship. We are all to a great extent a social and emotional work in progress, with a competing mix of healthy and unhealthy tendencies. Nothing about interaction with a robot spurs the user to examine or adjust social and emotional maladjustments, as human relationships—especially long-term relationships—tend to do. This may be an appealing feature of robot relationships in the beginning, but hardly leads to the kind of personal growth that comes from the serious self-reflection involved in negotiating the vagaries of human relationships. We have to accept that robot relationships have their limits and that making them central to our lives will likely stunt our growth and provide us with little impetus to truly flourish.
It’s true that we frequently use real people and animals to comfort us, to ease our loneliness, and to evoke positive feelings. But people and animals command real respect in their own right and will sooner or later assert their own needs. A robot will not, because it has no real needs beyond a working power supply. It doesn’t need to be respected because it’s not alive and has no feelings to be wounded or slighted when we treat it with insensitivity or abuse. If we become too accustomed to using robots to elicit good feelings in us while being asked for nothing in return, we will unconsciously transfer the same expectations to other people, failing to properly respect them, and feel confusion and frustration when they rebel against our demands.
What’s more, if a person becomes used to the habit of self-deception and replacing reality with a species of make-believe (i.e. that a robot loves us unconditionally), he will fail to respect his own emotional well-being and his need to live an authentic life. It might even be considered a kind of self-harm or self-neglect when one’s real psychological issues are conveniently avoided and allowed to fester. None of this allows a lonely person to make true progress in the need to end real isolation. The person will have failed to flourish in the arena of social relations, one of the most important aspects of life.
The real issue at stake here is the staggering number of people who are lonely, uncared for, and in need of nurturing connection. When one’s attentions are being poured into a robot, they are not being poured into others who might actually need them. For the Danish philosopher Raffaele Rodogno, robot relationships become unethical when they displace real people or pets. Furthermore, he notes, it’s through our relationships that we find much of our identity and our sense of meaning in life. While a robot may elicit superficially pleasant feelings, it’s unlikely that it would provide a deeper sense of meaning or become a large part of our identity.
If social robots really do become as common as televisions or cars, it would entail unprecedented social change. If they become the training ground for real relationships, the intimate human relations that form the bedrock of society will shift into something of a different character. Millions of people will be stuck in a kind of perpetual social immaturity, unwilling or unable to emerge as emotionally mature adults. They will be hooked on the superficially pleasant feelings of interacting with robots—unaware of the deep emptiness they have inside.
Eve Herold is a science writer and Director of Policy Research and Education for the Healthspan Action Coalition.
Adapted from the book ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM by Eve Herold, Copyright (C) 2024 by Eve Herold. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, an imprint of St. Martin's Publishing Group. Now available wherever books are sold.
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