Loneliness is prompting people to marry AI chatbots. Will it work?

Clovis McEvoy
March 6, 2024
AI companions promise to shape themselves around you like emotional memory foam.

Can AI chatbots mend our fraying social fabric? AI can help people develop social skills and boost self-esteem, but development must be guided with safety and public health in mind, writes Clovis McEvoy.

An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. Across all age groups, genders, and ethnicities, our social circles are shrinking and we spend less time with those who are close to us. One of every four adults, globally, experience social isolation, which is greatest in Africa and the Middle East, whilst 12% of American and British adults have zero close friends.

Indeed, barely 30 years ago in 1990, a third of American adults had at least 10 close friends. The rise in loneliness is as dramatic as it is harmful. More than 1 in 2 American adults now experience it.

Loneliness can be as bad as 15 cigarettes a day.

Scientists knew little about loneliness in the 1990s, a decade in which there was little loneliness to worry about. Now that loneliness is widespread across the world, we know why it matters more than ever.

All in all, loneliness can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The United States’ head doctor, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warns that poor social connections can lead to a “29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia.” At the same time, we know that isolated individuals are at far greater risk for radicalisation.

Against this backdrop, artificial intelligence offers a radical new way to push back against social fragmentation: make friends with a chatbot instead.

Capable of everything from casual conversations to long-term friendships to romantic partnerships, public interest in AI chatbots has been growing for years. For one woman, artist Alicia Framis, her holographic AI partner, AiLex, is soon to become her husband. She’s not the first.

Alicia Framis is the first woman to marry a hologram, an AI output that fulfills all her emotional needs. Image: Alicia Framis.

Sure, taking an AI’s light-beam-hand in marriage might seem theatrical to many, but Framis is not alone in her belief that AI can be “a good option for those who need companionship.”

During the pandemic, AI companion aps became a lifeline for many and apps like Character AI and Replika now attract tens of millions of downloads, suggesting that leaning on the support of AI chatbots is inching closer to the mainstream.

At the same time, the benefits and risks of AI companion apps are still hard to quantify.

AI companions promise to shape themselves around you like emotional memory foam.

Many users of AI companion apps self-report a decrease in loneliness, with some companies marketing themselves by their ability to help users build communication and relationship skills for the real world. The few studies on this topic so far suggest that AI chatbots help increase human-to-human contact, in some cases helping users avoid suicidal ideas.

But chatbots have also seen users develop dependency and addiction, whilst many apps also come with significant undisclosed privacy risks.

So do AI companions do more harm than good? Many AI companions, which often feature idealised depictions of women, promise to shape themselves around you like emotional memory foam. They are available 24/7, they have no needs of their own, they forgive and forget. Real people are much more complicated.

In the same way that pornography can lead to unrealistic expectations, problems with physical intimacy, and misogyny, there is a danger that AI companions could lead to similar outcomes on an emotional level.

AI companions like on Replika now attract tens of millions of downloads and are subtly becoming part of the mainstream.

There is much we do not know about the long-term effects of having an AI friend, but there is no doubt that these apps can have profound impacts, beyond persuading some to marry beyond their own species. On the most extreme end, unsafe chatbots have already pushed people to take their own lives and the lives of others. Interactive chatbots are powerful, and their developers must shoulder a commensurate level of responsibility.

The loneliness epidemic may not be solved by AI companions alone. But these tools certainly have a role to play, helping users ultimately foster real world connections and find pathways that lead back to their communities.

In turn, it is up to us to ensure that those communities have the necessary resources to welcome home isolated and marginalised people. Volunteering, hobby groups, local sports teams, workshops – these are the activities that weave a social fabric, and our parks, sports fields, playgrounds, libraries, and community centres are the tent poles which hold that fabric aloft. 

Against a global drift toward isolation, it will take both technological innovations and old fashioned solutions to retie the knots that bind us all together.

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.