In 2018, then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May garnered global headlines for appointing her country’s first Minister for Loneliness, declaring, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”
Loneliness has also reached alarming proportions in the United States: A recent study led by Cigna found that more than three in five Americans are lonely, with young adults the most likely to report a pervasive sense of isolation.
And the loneliness epidemic has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic according to one survey, with 47% of American adults reporting they felt lonelier than usual, intensified no doubt by stay-at-home orders and social distancing.
As with the efforts to combat COVID-19, the fight against loneliness is fundamentally a public health issue: Chronic isolation is linked to a range of health maladies, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, dementia, and weakened immune systems, as the National Institute on Aging notes.
As the innovation community scurries to take on the pandemic itself with a wave of invention–from potential vaccines to telemedicine to drone deliveries and beyond–it is also awakening to the detrimental impact of loneliness and is harnessing cutting-edge insights and technology to address this critical public health need with consumer-facing emotional well-being products.
Here are five innovation areas to look out for in the struggle against loneliness:
Before the pandemic forced billions around the world into unprecedented social isolation, the notion of coexisting with robots may have struck a more dystopian than comforting chord. But in the era of COVID-19, it’s possible to reimagine robotic companions not as replacements for humans, but as legitimate solutions for improving the psychological wellbeing of many people experiencing prolonged isolation.
Intuition Robotics, an Israeli startup that utilizes AI to design personalized companion technologies for the elderly, offers an interesting case study. The company has created ElliQ, a digital home companion for the elderly that responds to questions, initiates calls, makes appointments, analyzes the user’s environment, and offers entertainment and mental enrichment activities.
PARO, a therapeutic robot developed by the Japanese company AIST, is an FDA-certified biofeedback device in the form of a baby seal. Commonly used for patients with dementia-related symptoms, sensors enable the robot to perceive the user’s environment, sense that it is being petted, and recognize voices and words.
As innovation in AI proceeds, personal robots will become increasingly sophisticated and personalized–adopting traits and habits to meet the specific needs and personality of the user.
When people say they feel lonely, they often mean they don’t feel they have anyone to confide in, a sentiment felt by one in four Americans. Chatbots–which have had a surge in usage during the pandemic–offer a variety of increasingly smart ways to provide that much-needed conversation partner.
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Take Woebot, a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)-based chatbot app developed by Stanford University research psychologist Alison Darcy. Monitoring and analyzing users’ moods during chats, the app helps users learn about themselves. The goal? Empowering users to take charge of their emotional well-being.
Replika enables users to create a personal digital companion, which “learns” through text conversations. AI algorithms and neural networks equip the companion to hold expressive, empathetic conversations.
As more organizations invest in chatbots for a variety of functions–including customer service–further progress in AI technology will only improve these artificial “conversationalists.”
For even the most tech savvy, finding constructive digital communities can be challenging–but creative, expert-driven ingenuity is opening new possibilities.
7Chairs offers text- and video-based, long-term emotional support groups facilitated by psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and licensed professional counselors for people facing chronic and acute illnesses, grief, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional health conditions.
Demand for such intimate connections has spiked during COVID lockdowns. QuarantineChat, founded as a free service to connect people who don’t know each other via a phone call, has been downloaded by 15,000 people from 183 countries since March. As the pandemic inspires more people to see the value in virtual community, such new, beneficial forms of gathering and support will certainly proliferate.
Alcove is a virtual living room curated by the AARP Innovation Labs to bring international and intergenerational families together to play games, watch videos, and forge memories.
Older adults grappling with loneliness may also appreciate Rendever, a VR platform that utilizes neuroscience to offer activities for cognitive stimulation, socialization, and therapy, even helping users recreate meaningful memories.
With investments in AR and VR predicted to soar over the coming years, this developing bend in reality will certainly begin playing more of a real part in our quest for companionship and community.
Those less attuned to newfangled technology can also benefit from anti-loneliness tech. KOMP is a screen that seniors’ digitally native children and grandchildren can use to share photos, send messages, and make video calls, while the end user need only use one button to keep things simple. No Isolation, the company behind the product, sold 1,800 KOMP units in March and April, compared to 650 in the entirety of 2019.
While meditation and mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm have risen in popularity over the past few years, the products that positively impact loneliness now and in a post-COVID-19 reality will be the ones that create personalized, highly tailored experiences for users, leveraging technologies like AI, big data and biofeedback to help us beat back that nagging, and often debilitating, feeling that we are alone in this.
Miri Polachek is the CEO of tech investment firm Joy Ventures, whose mission is to build, fund, and support companies developing science-backed consumer products that help people experience everyday moments of joy and improve emotional well-being.