Amidst the global pandemic that continues to wreak havoc worldwide, another dire issue has become prominent within our society: loneliness. With social distancing and lockdown measures in place, coping with isolation has been an ongoing challenge for many across the world.
In Japan, mental health has been a longstanding concern, including loneliness among elderlies in a rapidly greying society, and a high suicide rate across the wider population. However, the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems related to people’s wellbeing. Last year, the suicide rate in Japan increased for the first time in 11 years, with 20,919 reported cases in 2020, up 3.7 percent from 2019. The spike in cases among women was alarming, nearly 15 percent more than in 2019. A study by Whill Inc. revealed that around 70 percent of people in Japan aged 65 or older feel they have fewer opportunities to socialize or participate in community activities as they must spend more time at home due to older people being at exceptionally high risk for contracting the coronavirus.
Within such context, Japanese Prime Minister Suga appointed a Minister of Loneliness in February, recognizing isolation as a severe public health concern. Indeed, solitude continued for overextended periods may lead to poor mental health, including depression. In the case of the elderly, it runs the risk of causing or hastening dementia. Through collaboration across multiple agencies, this new Cabinet post aims to investigate social factors that lead to loneliness based on empirical data and develop concrete measures to tackle mental health issues.
In parallel, Prime Minister Suga has made the advancement of digital transformation a top priority for the administration, as demonstrated by six new legislations that aim to serve as the foundation of this plan. This includes legislation on the new Digital Agency, expected to be established by September 2021, and a new IT Basic Law to outline the direction of national IT policy. In addition, the Suga Administration aims to establish information banks to encourage data utilization and innovation, while empowering individuals to manage personal information. Surrounding artificial intelligence, Japan has established guidelines for ethical and sound development of AI and other cutting-edge technologies, including “Society 5.0”—an initiative to promote a human-centered society that achieves a high integration of cyberspace and physical space.
AI’S POTENTIAL TO TACKLE LONELINESS—AUGMENTING HUMAN EXPERIENCES
With increased focus on the intersection of innovation and social good, there is growing opportunity for businesses to showcase their commitment to solving social issues and care for the most vulnerable in our society through creative digital solutions. Leveraging advanced technology to support people’s wellbeing and social inclusion seems timely and valuable, particularly during a global pandemic.
Companies across the world have already created a wide array of AI products to help with isolation-induced issues, including robot pets and android companions, some achieving surprisingly high standards of resemblance to real-life humans. However, debates abound as the predominant use of robotics and AI to tackle loneliness focus on such technologies’ role in “replacing” human interaction. This leads to skepticism as to whether AI effectively reduces loneliness, due to its innate lack of emotional intelligence. It has also raised questions regarding whether such ways of using AI are ethical and sound, relating to concerns about “technological singularity”—a hypothetical point in time in the future where technology becomes uncontrollable, resulting in irreversible changes to human civilization. On the other hand, emerging case studies show how AI and robotics can “augment” human relationships by facilitating connections between people, showing strong alignment with policy goals to achieve human-centered innovation.
In Sweden—where more than half of all households consist of just one person—Accenture Interactive has created a project called “Memory Lane” that uses AI to tackle elderly loneliness. Using Google Voice Assistant, “Memory Lane” invites someone who is lonely to talk about their strongest memories and life experiences. Once captured, the conversation is then immediately converted into a physical book and a podcast, allowing participants’ voices to be archived and shared with strangers and younger generations.
OriHime, an avatar robot with a built-in camera developed by Japanese start-up Ory Laboratory, has allowed those who suffer from immobility to work and conduct physical tasks remotely, enabling them a means to social participation. Since 2018, support groups and companies have collaborated to host pop-up cafes, hiring disabled people and bed-bound patients, including those with ALS, to work as staff and speak with customers through OriHime. Having been unable to go out of the house as a child due to health issues himself, the CEO of Ory Laboratory Kentaro Yoshifuji developed OriHime based on his ambition to achieving a society where nobody has to be left out because of physical immobility. For Yoshifuji, the essence of the project is that it does not aim to connect humans and robots, but humans with other humans.
Both case studies demonstrate that AI could be utilized, not simply to substitute human relationships or create artificial interactions, but to kick down barriers that prevent contact between people. They can also amplify the voices of marginalized populations, allowing them to become active community members. While AI and robotics, if not applied appropriately, could appear to have alienating effects, the creators of Memory Lane and OriHime were able to develop solutions that genuinely enrich human experiences due to their strong empathy toward those who are currently suffering within society.
While more industry players are likely to embark on similar projects that pursue digital applications for social good, further policy and societal reforms are needed to back up this trend. For instance, as collected data becomes increasingly personal, it is vital to establish frameworks to protect data privacy and security. Further, in order to spread the benefits of technological change across our communities, it is critical to address the issue of digital divide and make sure that all social groups, including older people, are equipped with sufficient technological knowledge and are connected through a ubiquitous digital environment.