Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that an artificial intelligence (AI) might help combat loneliness and isolation. But the latest technology suggests there is great potential for voice assistant products to do just that.
There are really two separate thoughts here. One, there is the idea that interactions between an older adult and AI might help reduce isolation. And two, there is the idea that voice assistants like Alexa can facilitate deeper human to human interactions.
Alexa is an artificial intelligence (AI) developed by Amazon and made available in a family of hardware products with names like Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Dot. Similar voice assistants from competing companies include Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) and Hey Google (Google).
When Lawrence, age 60, wakes he welcomes the day with, “Good morning, Alexa.” That’s the cue for the AI to update Lawrence with the day’s weather, read him the latest news, and share with him traffic conditions on his wife’s route to work from east to west Toronto.
Having artificial intelligence to interact with is both cool and useful. But what if Alexa, as an example, could improve the depth and quantity of our interactions with our fellow humans?
Social Isolation and loneliness are complex conditions, with a variety of contributing causes which vary from person to person. But there are several ways in which you can imagine Alexa can make a difference.
Interactions directly with an AI (Alexa herself);
Interactions with other humans made easier, better and more frequent.
Deeper interactions with friends and family who live far away.
Making new friends and finding acquaintances with the right interests or personalities.
It is not uncommon for people to look fondly on their AI devices. "Alexa is my friend,” says one senior. It is nice to have a friendly AI there to talk to, and to have it play music, tell you a joke, adjust your lights and room temperature and, in Lawrence’s case, set the alarm clock.
Today, more groups and organizations are studying the potential of interacting with Alexa as an intervention for loneliness in the elderly. For example, AARP Foundation has a program for "Social Connectedness Voice-activated Technology", which has a goal of determining whether technology of this type can help older adults fight isolation and loneliness. And Front Porch and the Consumer Technology Association Foundation are rolling out Alexa to senior living facilities in the hope of impacting loneliness and isolation via the Voice-activated Independence for Smart Home Engagement (VISHN) initiative.
These programs involve humans interacting with AI.
When talking about Alexa and older adults, inevitably someone will say, "I don't really want to talk to a machine. I want to interact more with other people.” In it's latest form, Alexa has the potential to help facilitate deeper, and more frequent, human to human interactions.
There are two aspects to the combination of Alexa and the Amazon Echo Show that demonstrate the potential for more (and better) engagement between older adults and their friends and family.
The biggest and most important capability is super-simple video call capability. Just say "Alexa, call Mom," and Alexa places a video call, a face appears on the Echo Show, and you can interact with them.
Making conventional phone calls, with a voice command, is equally easy — which can be important in scenarios where physical or mental challenges might make it less likely that an older adult would make that phone call with more conventional technology.
Many people have close friends and family members who live elsewhere far enough away that face-to-face meetings are less likely and less frequent. The new technology will enable more and deeper interactions with distant friends and family.
The ideal product for interacting is some type of "robot" that can be used to do a remote visit; to be able to appear on it; to be able to sit in their living room and share a chat and a cup of tea; and be able to follow them around the house so we can talk as they does other things. Such products almost exist, offering a depth of connection with video that is just not there with a conventional voice call. And video calls seem to make it easier to just hang out.
For one-on-one video conversations, Facetime is a remarkably simple app. The potential for Alexa and the Amazon Echo Show is for the many people who are just not comfortable using Facetime, or are not in the Apple world.
A challenge that many adults are interested in addressing is how to make new friends, or meet acquaintances who share common interests.
The people with whom older adults can most easily interact - because they live close by, or attend the same church, centres and retail - are not necessarily the people who share the same interests.
Older adults are often segregated by age, and the assumption is that you will want to hang out with others just because you are of a similar age. But what if you care less about a person's age than about their interests or opinions or type of personality? And perhaps you have a hard time finding such people in your immediate circles.
This is where the idea of affinity groups becomes intriguing. It could be interesting to be part of a group characterized not just by age, but by something you care about such as a common interest or shared experience. There are already examples of ways to do this, of course. There are Meetups. And there are various online "meeting" sites, where you can make new friends. And we think these are excellent ideas. But what if the Meetup you want to attend is too far away? Or if it is at night and you don't like to go out at night? Amazon Echo Show might play a role in attending meetings remotely, opening up a new group of potential human-to-human interactions.
But Alexa is certainly not perfect. For older adults, there is the complexity of getting Alexa set up in the first place. Many older users rely on someone else, usually a family member, to set up the device for them. What might be reassuring is the knowledge that, as AI does more and more, people have to do less and less, and this includes improving ease of accessibility to AI.
Can Alexa Help Fight Loneliness and Isolation?