Loneliness: Can AI and robots help?

OriHome robot, a social companion from Japan

Japan has a Ministry of Loneliness with a Minister whose mission is to combat social isolation in the country. This is a widely recognized problem in Japan, with a special term, hikikomori, created to refer to shut-ins who have virtually no contact with other people. Loneliness is common among older Japanese, but a study showed that it is prevalent among younger age groups as well. Prolonged social isolation can lead to depression and increases the risk of suicide, a perennial issue in Japan. Now the Japanese government through its Loneliness Minister is enlisting AI tech to help alleviate the problem. There is an experimental program which lends out robots to those who are isolated or who struggle with anxiety about social interactions. The robost, called OriHome, are tiny, just 9 inches tool, white, with green eyes. They are controlled by an app on mobile devices. According to the report, the robot has two arms, which it moves about expressively while talking, allowing for integration of nonverbal communication.

OriHome is not the first such device in Japan designed to provide companionship to humans. Paro is a robotic seal deployed in a retirement facility. Sony Aibo robot dogs have been available for some time. A piece in the Huffington Post traces the evolution of robotic companions in Japan. While the Japanese tend to embrace new tech early and often enthusiastically, the trend towards socially competent AI is something we are seeing world-wide, particularly through smart voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. Advances in voice recognition and in more naturally sounding synthetic voices have grown at a fast pace in recent years. Tech companies are also trying to make the assistants more social, through providing more human-like politeness formulas and small talk. They are also beginning to be able to build persistent models of user interactions, which enable multi-turn conversations and some degree of follow-up from previous conversations. Recently a Google engineer claimed that Google’s most advanced AI conversation partner, Lamda, had in fact become sentient. Most AI experts have expressed extreme skepticism. But the claim alone demonstrates how sophisticated such AI systems have become in being able to mimic humans engaged in conversation.

In the current issue of Language Learning & Technology, I have a column which examines how partnering with AI has benefited language learners, particularly in terms of writing in a second language.

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