Can robots save us from loneliness?

Alexa, play ‘All By Myself’
Can robots save us from loneliness?

Sophia the robot in Abu Dhabi, Courtesy of Etihad

We’d say it’s safe to assume that, with the exception of the few, say, symbiotic lovebirds or persistent sociopaths (just kidding), everybody is profoundly aware of loneliness - probably more than they’d like to be. After all, loneliness is now considered a modern-day pandemic (like we needed another one).

While public-health experts scramble towards a solution to the problem of loneliness on a larger scale, scientists believe they’ve figured out how to help us stay sane in the meantime. One word: robots.

Though just the thought of robots is enough to send us into a frenzy of apocalyptic dread thanks to certain v reliable sources (definitely not WALL-E or The Terminator), experts remain steadfast in that robots could become our friends and even provide enjoyable company. If you’re not quite convinced, you may be swayed when you see what exactly they’ve been working on.

It’s a furry robot seal. All together now: ‘Aww!’

The robot, called PARO, may look more like a luxe toy than a healthcare tool, but under its fuzzy exterior and envy-inducing lashes lies sophisticated artificial intelligence designed to comfort people.

PARO was initially developed by Japanese roboticist Takanori Shibata to help elderly patients with neurodegenerative conditions. However, a 2020 study suggests that it may also help younger people who are just in need of a remedy for loneliness.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that individuals who interacted with PARO reported an elevation in mood and a decrease in perceived pain. Not only that, but previous studies have reported that interactions with PARO improved blood pressure and oxygenation levels, and stirred the emotions of patients who otherwise often appeared disconnected.

"These findings offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being, which are particularly needed at this time, when [isolation] is a crucial factor in public health," said Levy-Tzedek, lead author on the study.

For all the comfort and companionship PARO offers, though, it does raise some questions: Do we need more technology when meaningful human contact is already so scare? Will it incite people to rely on it to replace human connection entirely? And when will scientists be making a cat version?

Though we don’t yet have answers to those questions, for now, we wouldn’t mind a little snuggle with a fluffy chirping robot. And to be entirely honest, if a robot invasion is bound to happen anyway, we’d much prefer being chased by machine baby seals.

Photos: Instagram and Unsplash