Fake Friends For Life


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 "S