AI-powered companion robots could end loneliness in older adults

New report finds robots could be a solution for the millions of isolated people who have no other option.
Shubhangi Dua
Companion robots equipped AI help older adults offset loneliness
Companion robots equipped AI help older adults offset loneliness

demaerre / iStock 

With companion robots already taking the healthcare world by storm, demand for such robots is accelerating. 

Future Market Insights predicts that the global healthcare companion robots market will hit a market value of US $11.73 Billion by registering a CAGR of 18 percent in the forecast period from 2023 to 2033.

In light of this boom in AI-powered robots, a new study reports that companion robots enhanced with artificial intelligence may one day help alleviate the loneliness epidemic.

The findings go further to propose a way to measure whether a companion robot is helping someone.

They also developed a new method to measure a robot’s impact, called the “Companion Robot Impact Scale” (Co-Bot-I-7) which seeks to establish the impact on physical health and loneliness, and it is shows that companion machines are already proving effective.

Murali Doraiswamy, Professor of Psychiatry and Geriatrics at Duke University and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences said:

“Right now, all the evidence points to having a real friend as the best solution, but until society prioritizes social connectedness and eldercare, robots are a solution for the millions of isolated people who have no other solutions.”

Offsetting loneliness

Researchers outlined some ethical considerations for governments, policymakers, technologists and clinicians. They encourage stakeholders to collaborate and rapidly develop guidelines for trust, agency, engagement and real-world efficacy, the study said. 

The report was motivated by survey data indicating the quadrupling number of Americans with no close friends since 1990, implying increased loneliness and social isolation.

This could severely impact the health of nearly a third of the world's population. Consequences include increased risk for mental health, obesity, dementia and even early death. 

Vivek H. Murthy, a US Surgeon General says that loneliness may even be as pernicious a health factor as smoking cigarettes.

Researchers highlight that it may be difficult for adults to make new friends, however, an AI-backed companion robot could make for a potential solution to offset loneliness. 

Companion robots can help socially isolated older individuals and help them stay ​​active in their homes. Past research has also supported the concept, stating that companion robots have made a significant positive impact on older adults, particularly from a nursing perspective.

The latest technological developments in robotics and accelerating advancements in AI programs could foster stronger social connections with humans than earlier generations of robots. 

The study states, “Generative AI like ChatGPT, which is based on large language models, allows robots to engage in more spontaneous conversations, and even mimic the voices of old friends and loved ones who have passed away.”

Ethical implications

Elizabeth Broadbent Professor of Psychological Medicine at Waipapa Taumata Rau at the University of Auckland, said that AI presents exciting opportunities to give companion robots greater skills to build connection, but rules might be necessary to ensure the robots "stay moral and trustworthy". 

The authors highlight that doctors agree with the study’s notion, as Sermo survey data revealed that among 307 care providers across Europe and US, 69 percent of physicians approved of social robots providing companionship to relieve isolation and potentially improve a patients’ mental health.

Additionally, 70 percent of doctors also felt insurance companies should cover the cost of companion robots if they prove to be effective friendship supplements, researchers said.

The challenge component strikes when the robot’s impact has to be measured. The lack of an estimating model emphasizes the need to develop patient-rated outcome measures. For this reason, the researchers constructed the Co-Bot-I-7.

Broadbent’s lab results insinuate that amiable androids help reduce stress and even promote skin healing after a minor wound.

“With the right ethical guidelines, we may be able to build on current work to use robots to create a healthier society,” the authors said. 

Their report was published today in the issue of Science Robotics.

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