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  • Robert Farago

Loneliness


Facebook is on the case and that's not good

I know a guy who’s collected hundreds of millions of Facebook profiles. Legally. He packages the profiles and sells them to advertisers. Hhhhhold it! I said.

Why don’t you use this info to create a proactive internet-enabled Alexa-like interface that guides users through their daily life? Keeps them company. Makes them happy.

The data guy wasn’t interested. He was busy spending his money. Besides, he said, privacy.

Privacy is dead, I countered. No one gives a shit about that anymore (if they ever did). Besides, you’d be doing this country a big favor, addressing America’s loneliness epidemic.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of all U.S. adults experienced measurable levels of loneliness.

A Harvard study found that some 31 percent of all Americans - including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children – report "serious loneliness.”

There’s a direct correlation between loneliness and depression. More than eight percent of adults (21 million) are clinically depressed. Fifteen percent of children aged 13 to 17 (3.7 million) suffer from major depression.

That’s without considering any connection between loneliness and alcoholism and drug addiction.

The cause? Well, we can’t blame China for this epidemic. But we can point a finger at the internet, “social media” and all.

The internet has atomized the communal structures that create healthy support networks – churches, social groups, schools, employment, shopping, marriage, child rearing and more.

If an EMP device took out the ‘net, would we be less lonely? Sure, right after millions of people perished in the computer-free chaos. But the imaginary scenario highlights our internet-inspired interpersonal alienation.

Clearly, we need more and more sympathetic human interaction within our existing technological ecosystem. But how?

Internet entrepreneurs are having a go at re-linking people in the real world. Facebook, Patook, Meetup, UNBLND, Bumble BFF and Moving APT are all designed to connect strangers.

Whether it’s reticence about using the apps or users’ inability to leverage them to make worthwhile connections, BFF 4 U sites are failing to fill the void. AI is the answer. Like this:

I sense you’re bored. There’s an author signing at your nearby Barnes & Noble. You like mysteries and his book has four stars. Would you like to go? Maybe your friend Carl would like to join you? I can send him an invite if you like.

AI as Mother nudging you to turn off your phone and go outside and play? Yes, but more than that.

A judgement-free, rock-steady friend, attuned to your habits, hope, dreams and emotional needs. Learning what makes you happy and helping you to find more of it with other people.

I’ve written about the dangers of AI friends before (AI is Coming for Your Kids) and the potential benefits (Chatbots Are Not Your Friend). The danger is here, now.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced its chatbot strategy (Meet META's Sassmaster General). They’ve created a range of chatty chat bots to “increase engagement.” Not to tackle the loneliness epidemic. To make money. From advertising.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I trust Big Tech to create a healthy interactive AI chatbot as far as I can throw Mark Zuckerberg’s 350-foot yacht.

What’s needed: an AI friend we can trust. An expert system that’s looking out for our mental, physical and emotional health and happiness, rather than chasing the almighty dollar.

The technology is there. The expertise is there. The need is there. The money?

I have no idea who could fund such a complicated and expensive mission without regard to maximizing profitability or pursuing political power. (Hence not Mark and not the government.)

At the end of the proverbial day, none of us wants to be alone. To be lonely. AI holds out hope for a more connected future. The trick is to use AI to connect us to each other, not corporate America.

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