Companion robots could help alleviate loneliness epidemic, but ethical guidelines needed

A recent report from researchers at Auckland, Duke, and Cornell Universities suggests that companion robots equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to address the growing issue of loneliness. Published in the July 12 issue of Science Robotics, the report emphasizes the need for collaboration among governments, policymakers, technologists, and clinicians to establish guidelines related to trust, agency, engagement, and real-world effectiveness.

While acknowledging that having real human connections is currently the best solution, the researchers argue that until society prioritizes social connectedness and eldercare, robots can serve as a valuable solution for the millions of isolated individuals who lack alternatives. The Survey Center on American Life indicates that the number of Americans without close friends has quadrupled since 1990, and similar trends of increased loneliness and social isolation are seen globally. These issues have serious health implications, including heightened risks of mental illness, obesity, dementia, and premature death. The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., even suggests that loneliness may be as detrimental to health as smoking cigarettes.

Developing new friendships as an adult becomes increasingly challenging, making companion robots a promising option for supporting socially isolated older adults. The researchers highlight the exciting potential of AI to enhance companion robots’ abilities in building social connections. However, they emphasize the importance of incorporating rules to ensure the moral and trustworthy nature of these robots.

Studies on companion robots, such as ElliQ, have demonstrated their ability to reduce stress, alleviate loneliness, and help older individuals maintain health and activity levels at home. Advanced AI programs embedded in newer robots facilitate stronger social connections with humans, with generative AI models like ChatGPT enabling more natural and spontaneous conversations. These models can even mimic the voices of deceased loved ones.

The report mentions that a Sermo survey of 307 care providers across Europe and the United States found that 69% of physicians agreed that social robots could provide companionship, relieve isolation, and potentially improve mental health in patients. Additionally, 70% of doctors believed that insurance companies should cover the cost of companion robots if their effectiveness as friendship supplements is proven. However, measuring the impact of companion robots remains challenging.

To address this issue, the authors emphasize the need for patient-rated outcome measures and introduce the “Companion Robot Impact Scale” (Co-Bot-I-7). This scale aims to assess the impact of companion robots on physical health and loneliness, with early results indicating their effectiveness, such as stress reduction and promotion of skin healing after minor wounds.

The authors conclude that with proper ethical guidelines in place, society can leverage robots to create a healthier and more connected community. The study authors include Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, Professor Elizabeth Broadbent, Dr. Mark Billinghurst, and Dr. Samantha Boardman. Dr. Doraiswamy and Professor Broadbent have served as advisors to Sermo and technology companies, while Dr. Doraiswamy, Professor Broadbent, and Dr. Boardman are co-developers of the Co-Bot-I-7 scale.

Source: Duke University

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