Tag Archives: loneliness

Chat-bots will help reduce loneliness, a bit

Amazon is really pushing its Echo and Dot devices at the moment and some other companies also use Alexa in their own devices. They are starting to gain avatar front ends too. Microsoft has their Cortana transforming into Zo, Apple has Siri’s future under wraps for now. Maybe we’ll see Siri in a Sari soon, who knows. Thanks to rapidly developing AI, chatbots and other bots have also made big strides in recent years, so it’s obvious that the two can easily be combined. The new voice control interfaces could become chatbots to offer a degree of companionship. Obviously that isn’t as good as chatting to real people, but many, very many people don’t have that choice. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of our time. Sometimes people talk to themselves or to their pet cat, and chatting to a bot would at least get a real response some of the time. It goes further than simple interaction though.

I’m not trying to understate the magnitude of the loneliness problem, and it can’t solve it completely of course, but I think it will be a benefit to at least some lonely people in a few ways. Simply having someone to chat to will already be of some help. People will form emotional relationships with bots that they talk to a lot, especially once they have a visual front end such as an avatar. It will help some to develop and practice social skills if that is their problem, and for many others who feel left out of local activity, it might offer them real-time advice on what is on locally in the next few days that might appeal to them, based on their conversations. Talking through problems with a bot can also help almost as much as doing so with a human. In ancient times when I was a programmer, I’d often solve a bug by trying to explain how my program worked, and in doing so i would see the bug myself. Explaining it to a teddy bear would have been just as effective, the chat was just a vehicle for checking through the logic from a new angle. The same might apply to interactive conversation with a bot. Sometimes lonely people can talk too much about problems when they finally meet people, and that can act as a deterrent to future encounters, so that barrier would also be reduced. All in all, having a bot might make lonely people more able to get and sustain good quality social interactions with real people, and make friends.

Another benefit that has nothing to do with loneliness is that giving a computer voice instructions forces people to think clearly and phrase their requests correctly, just like writing a short computer program. In a society where so many people don’t seem to think very clearly or even if they can, often can’t express what they want clearly, this will give some much needed training.

Chatbots could also offer challenges to people’s thinking, even to help counter extremism. If people make comments that go against acceptable social attitudes or against known facts, a bot could present the alternative viewpoint, probably more patiently than another human who finds such viewpoints frustrating. I’d hate to see this as a means to police political correctness, though it might well be used in such a way by some providers, but it could improve people’s lack of understanding of even the most basic science, technology, culture or even politics, so has educational value. Even if it doesn’t convert people, it might at least help them to understand their own views more clearly and be better practiced at communicating their arguments.

Chat bots could make a significant contribution to society. They are just machines, but those machines are tools for other people and society as a whole to help more effectively.


The future of loneliness

This is primarily about a UK problem, and I honestly don’t know how much US society suffers from it, but I suspect at least some of it holds true in many areas there too.

I’m fortunate that it doesn’t affect me directly, since my wife is all the company I need to be happy, but loneliness is arguably the biggest problem in modern UK society, certainly one of the biggest. Young people feel lonely, old people feel lonely, new mothers feel lonely, students feel lonely. Many others too. It affects a lot of people.

The British Red Cross in conjunction with The Co-op today released a new report on it saying chronic loneliness is becoming a public health issue: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/health-and-care/opinion/british-red-cross/81457/chronic-loneliness-has-become-public-health


http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Health-and-social-care/Independent-living/Loneliness-and-isolation/Research saying 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely

Older people are the most obvious group affected.

Some reports say loneliness increases chance of death by 25%: http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

Another recent report from Age UK already includes some alarming figures for older people. Taking just two examples (read it for far more) 1 in 8 over-65s chronically lonely, and nearly 1 in 14 having no close friends at all:  www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf

Although older people are the main problem group for loneliness, it can affect anyone, with a few other highlight groups. Each year, 1 in 4000 men between 45-59 commit suicide, 5 times as high as the average rate for female suicide.

New mothers can often feel lonely. The good news (according to netmums) is that thanks to smartphone use, the number is down from 60% a decade ago to 28% today, but that still means more than a quarter of new mums feel lonely even today. I’d also note that between 2006 and today, the netmums user base has changed a great deal, so much of that drop may well be attributable to the high proportion of new mums drawn from immigrant communities, which often have different social support characteristics than the rest of the population, so the figures might not be quite so bright for non-immigrant mums.

Students too experience moving away from an established family and friends support base to a totally new environment where often they might not know anyone at first. Not everyone is expert at making new friends quickly, so many students feel lonely too. Student suicides are at an all time high as students are ‘fraught with loneliness and anxiety’ according to Professor Siobhan O’Neill:


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/not-just-a-problem-for-old-people-why-the-young-are-lonely-too/ discusses ‘the 7 ages on loneliness

The sick, the newly divorced, unhappy singles and recent retirees are other groups particularly vulnerable to loneliness. But enough figures and reports, with so much recent press and public discussion about it, we can’t claim that it is a new or unknown problem, but in spite of a few positives such as from netmums, we can be sure it still remains a huge and persistent problem. The organisations named above are doing their bit to help, as are many others, and still it persists.

It would be lovely to believe that improving social networking will solve it all, but it clearly hasn’t even though we could reasonably say that people are mostly familiar with it, mostly know how to use it and it is pretty mature now. As I mentioned, even the netmums good news could in part be the result of changing demographics rather than the problem actually being solved. Only in part though, as I do believe the net does have a positive impact and does let people find new friends and chat to others even when they can’t get out. It must have some benefit, but the figures still say that its impact is at best only a reduction rather than elimination.

There are other net trends that might make it worse though. One is the increasing division we have in society, and another is the increasing censorship under threat of social and economic exclusion if people say something politically incorrect. This is creating barriers between people, not drawing them together, as I wrote in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/increasing-censorship-will-lead-to-increasing-loneliness/. Social networking brings people into more frequent contact with strangers, but the separation and anonymity often involved in that also brings out the worst in some people, and social media have become ideological battlegrounds that so often quickly polarise into group-think camps, increasing isolation rather than reducing it.

More evidence that the net doesn’t solve everything is that the Kindr app that was aimed specifically at helping people to be nice to each other seems to have disappeared or at least become inert after a short life, whereas I had hoped it might bring a part solution to helping people who rarely get affection or praise from others: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/compliments/

Networking clearly helps some people some of the time, but not for everyone all of the time, and in some cases makes things worse.

Automation of shopping and increased competition from the net forces lower prices but sometimes at the expense of human interaction, and for some people, a brief exchange with a checkout assistant is the only contact they get. If we see more automation of shops with more self service tills, that will directly increase loneliness.

The solution is clearly to restore at least some of the real face to face social contact that has become depleted for many in our modern society. Face to face meeting is emotionally more valuable than net contact, and though nets can put people in touch with others or let them know what is going on, it can’t directly provide that contact. People who go to work every day or have busy social lives may not see a problem or if they do, they may feel they have too little time left in their busy lives to spend providing company to someone else.

We have lost a lot of activity that used to provide rich social contact. Many work from home instead of going to an office. Church attendance has dropped enormously, along with the social gatherings, choir practices, old people dinners and barn dances they used to organise. Communities don’t have to get together to help a farmer bring in the harvest. People with cars walk less, have more geographically distributed friends and meet fewer of their neighbours.

Many activists today seem rather obsessed with tolerance, albeit in an Orwellian doublespeak sort of way. Perhaps they should be obsessed about caring for others instead of polishing their halos on twitter. If they are eager to solve a problem to make themselves feel virtuous, this one is screaming for help. The rest of us need to be more willing to do our part too. It is easy to focus on our own lives and our own needs. Many of us are content with the friends we have and maybe we are not aware of anyone who is lonely, or admitting to it. I don’t even know the names of some of the people in my street, let alone whether they are lonely. If I did know of someone nearby who I thought was feeling left out, I think I’d be happy to meet them for coffee or a chat sometimes. But I don’t, and I don’t make any effort to find them either. So the problem remains, and I have done nothing to help. There must be millions like me, caring in a distant luke-warm sort of way about a theoretical part of society that I have no contact with. Except that it isn’t theoretical, it is a massive diverse chunk of society that feels left out. Hiding unknown, God knows where, apparently almost everywhere.

Maybe most of us we do care and would do more if we knew what, where, when, and how we could help and if it wasn’t too much hassle or too time consuming. Obviously, those last requirements depend on whether we know the person, so it’s clear that we’ve been running in a vicious cycle of lower contact and therefore caring less. By meeting people more, we’ll get to know them better and care for them more, though I can think of exceptions. I used to be involved in The Samaritans, on a phone line or fundraising to keep the lines open. I stopped doing that a long time ago as work got too busy; we often use that excuse not to get involved.  If I think about starting again, I immediately think of the traffic problems getting there, parking issues and so on. I am sure many other people might do more if someone else organised it and it was less hassle. Surely, that’s what activists are for. They organise stuff, motivate people, give them a kick up the pants and tell them to get on with it. With all the social networking and AI out there, this really should be solvable.

Now that we have the prospect of AI and automation promising to improve productivity and everyone is worried about jobs, government should work out how to maintain fair distribution of wealth as machines take over, while taking the windfall of collective spare work force hours to recover some of what we have paid for the rapid economic development to get to this point.

The existence of all these charities and organisations yelling loudly about the problem shows absolutely that a lot of people do care and want to do something about it. If time is the problem, we will soon have more time, collectively at least, and more wealth as the productivity gains hit the economy, so more money to pay for it. That will allow activists and social entrepreneurs and councils to work together to provide human resources to find those who want help, transport to get them to social gatherings of whatever kind is suited to them, and to fund those activities and the places they need. The net may not be intuitive or easy for everyone to use, but plenty of people can work it, and providing access to willing helpers will help many people to find what’s on, who might be there that they are likely to enjoy meeting and making it happen.

Red tape barriers need to be wiped away too. The compensation and box-ticking culture has done huge harm. Lots of village fetes, dances and so on no longer happen  because they mean someone now has to apply for assorted licenses, do risk assessments, buy insurances and jump through endless administrative hoops. Why would anyone want to do that? Once upon a time you rang up the hall administrator, booked it, booked a band, then sold tickets. If someone tripped and sprained an ankle, they should have watched where they were going.

The virtuous circle of increasing contact and caring will work, if we can get it going again. People do care more about people they know than someone who is just a statistic. If people with a small level of even theoretical caring for such a large social need can be dragged or otherwise motivated to join in with social activity in their area that someone else has organised, before long, people will have more friends in that area, and they’ll be happy to work together to organise more events and involve more people. Soon, we’ll be back to a proper working society again.

We have the technology. Soon we will have the time and resources to make it happen, to start a virtuous circle to rebuild missing connection in society that leave so many people out, and fix some of the other social problems we created along the way to today’s UK.


Increasing censorship will lead to increasing loneliness

Like many people reading the news, I am rather baffled at the new wave of apparent offense caused by another perfectly innocent use of a word that has simply gone out of fashion. Benedict Cumberbatch accidentally used the word ‘coloured’ when referring to a black person. He intended no offense and it was presumably a simple slip of the tongue based on his early education on good manners. People use all sorts of words and grammar when speaking that they would filter, rearrange or translate when writing.

When I was young in 1970s Belfast, ‘black’ was considered impolite and ‘coloured’ was considered more respectful. Fashion has changed and ‘black’ is the current polite word in the UK, I think. People adapt and learn eventually, but occasional accidental reversion to earlier terminology in real time interactions ought to be accepted by reasonable people. But it isn’t as simple as that.

The US-based civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People evidently still uses the word ‘colored’. It is initially hard to understand why an organisation that represents black people would use a word in their actual title that is actually considered offensive elsewhere, in the internet age. There is a feasible explanation though, thanks to Aisha (@aisha_rsh) for the link: http://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-NAACP-still-use-Colored-People-in-the-organizations-name-Like-Negro-that-term-appears-to-be-outdated-Some-even-find-it-offensive

That’s fine, I sort of understand, but even so, it does seem that alleged hurt feelings are somewhat exaggerated. Those who claim to be offended by it are presumably not offended when the largest black rights organisation uses it, even if for reasons of honoring tradition. If it is only offensive when spoken by a non-black such as Cumberbatch, then that is a form of mild racism against whites. Racism is bad in either direction. We should all have the same rules and have equal access to the same vocabulary. I’m all for full and true equality, but against any group claiming superiority, even via alleged victim-hood and deliberate offense-taking. In any case, my parents taught me about sticks and stones and the lesson stuck well. I’ve experienced plenty of name-calling but never lost any sleep over it.

People can be hurt by words, and when that hurt is genuine, then apologies are justified and Cumberbatch has apologized for any offence he caused. However, let’s also remember that taking offense when no offense is intended can be and often is an offensive act. It can be a form of aggression, of putting down the other while putting oneself on a pedestal. In this case, some of the comment certainly falls in that category.

However, after a 400 word intro, I am becoming aware I am drifting off my intended point. Which is:

At the moment, we are seeing worldwide a growing conflict between sub-communities. With too much genuine misery and genuine discrimination and genuine oppression in the world, there is also a great deal of parallel abuse of those good people who want to stop it and ensure a fairer world for all. It is one thing to be freed from oppression and exploitation; it is quite another to use someone else’s oppression to advantage yourself. Having genuine victims in a community does not justify a free pass for that entire community any more than prejudice is justified against an entire community because of the actions of a few.

However, that seems to be the road we have been travelling. In trying to fight prejudice, sometimes we end up with privileged treatment for certain social groups. A small temporary overshoot is fine, as long as a level playing field eventually comes. The problem is when overshoot and privilege produces lasting barriers. When special treatment is available, it inevitably becomes a source of tribal competition and conflict and reinforces barriers instead of removing them.

If people have to stick to special vocabulary on pain of losing their career, if they are forced to censor everything they say or write or do to avoid causing offence to the easily or intentionally or even professionally offended or attracting criticism from sanctimonious busybodies or even the police, then instead of tribal boundaries being wiped away and social cohesion and inclusion  improving, communication between groups and between individuals drops, barriers grow and are reinforced, stresses rise, and social inclusion drops and loneliness increases.

Protection of the disadvantaged is a noble cause, but it must be restricted to those that are actually disadvantaged and it must stop once protection is effective. If it is allowed to increase beyond equality or extend to entire social groups, or if privilege remains permanent, then it causes division and reverse oppression.

This matters. Tribalism is a big problem. Loneliness is a massive social problem. People need to communicate, they need friends. If they don’t feel free to speak due to (possibly exaggerated) fear of possible condemnation, then they may self-censor, keep their thoughts to themselves, restrict their social activities, withdraw and become isolated and lonely. That is not a healthy trend.

Censorship is increasing rapidly. Surveillance is increasing rapidly too, especially including social surveillance in media such as twitter and Facebook by both police and random busybodies. Quality of relationships online is generally lower than face to face relationships, and loneliness is already increasing. Adding to that will make it worse and worse.

Left unaddressed, this problem looks set to worsen. Barriers are growing, and being locked in place, then cameras and microphones are being added to the barriers. Meanwhile, penalties are increasing. A single word that is merely out of date and otherwise innocently used can destroy a career.

All nice people want a nice world where everyone is treated fairly and oppression has vanished. We should avoid offending people unnecessarily, but we must also be forgiving when no offence is intended or a word is no more than an innocent slip of the tongue. We need to be far better at dealing with specific instances of disadvantage or oppression and far less willing to grant long-term privileges to entire social groups. And most of all, we need to restore true freedom of speech or suffer some pretty big social problems.

Make no mistake. The busybodies and the deliberately offended are the new Spanish Inquisition. We really don’t want them in charge.


The future of youth

Been stalling a while wondering which Y to pick (yellow was my previous target) but my mind was made last night when I watched a news interview about young people’s behavior. The article contrasted the increasingly exciting lives of the elderly with the increasingly lonely lives of the young. It made very sad listening. Youth should be a time of joy, exploration and experimentation, reaching out, stretching boundaries, living life to its full. It’s always had plenty of problems to deal with too, but we’re adding to all the natural stresses of growing up.

The main thrust was that young people are lonely, because they don’t have enough cash to socialize properly so make do with staying in their room and using social media. That is a big enough problem, but a different one caught my attention this time.

The bit that worried me was the interview with a couple of people hoping to start off in professional careers. One pointed out that she had once got drunk and pictures had been uploaded onto social media so now she doesn’t dare drink any more because she doesn’t want pictures or anything else on social media damaging her career prospects. She is effectively living a censored life to protect her career, feeling that she is living her life in camera all the time.

Celebrities are well used to that, but celebrities usually have the compensations of a good income and guaranteed social life so they don’t have to worry about buying a home or seeing other people. Young people are now suffering the constant supervision without the benefits. We’ve had ‘friends with benefits’, now we’re seeing ‘celebs without benefits’ as people are thrust for all the wrong reasons into the spotlight and their lives wrecked, or constantly self-censoring to avoid that happening to them.

This trend will worsen a lot as cameras become even more ubiquitously tied in to social media, via Google Glass and other visors, button cams, necklace cams and a wide range of other lifestyle cameras and lifestyle blogging devices as well as all the smartphones and tablets and smart TV cameras. Everyone must then assume that everything they do and say in company (physical or online) may be recorded.

There are two main reactions to total privacy loss, and both make some sense.

A: Nobody is perfect so everyone will have some embarrassing things about them out there somewhere, so it doesn’t matter much if you do too.

B: The capture of embarrassing situations is subject to pretty random forces so is not equally distributed. You may do something you’d really regret but nobody records it, so you get away with it. Or you may do something less embarrassing but it is recorded, uploaded and widely shared and it may be a permanent blemish on your CV.

Both of these approaches make some sense. If you think you will be in an ordinary job you may not feel it matters very much if there is some dirt on you because nobody will bother to look for it and in any case it won’t be much worse than the people sitting beside you so it won’t put you at any significant disadvantage. But the more high profile the career you want, the more prominent the second analysis becomes. People will be more likely to look for dirt as you rise up the ladder and more likely to use it against you. The professional girl being interviewed on the news was in the second category and understood that the only way to be sure you don’t suffer blemishes and damaged career prospects is to abstain from many activities previously seen as fun.

That is a very sad position and was never intended. The web was invented to make our lives better, making it easier to find and share scientific documents or other knowledge. It wasn’t intended to lock people in their rooms or make them avoid having fun. The devices and services we use on the internet and on mobile networks were also invented to make our lives richer and more fulfilled, to put us more in touch with others and to reduce isolation and loneliness. In some cases they are doing the opposite. Unintended consequences, but consequences nonetheless.

I don’t want to overstate this concern. I have managed to live a very happy life without ever having taken drugs, never having been chained naked to a lamppost, never gone to any dubious clubs and only once or twice getting drunk in public. There are some embarrassing things on the web, but not many. I have had many interesting online exchanges with people I have never met, got involved in many projects I’d never have been involved with otherwise, and on balance the web has made my life better, not worse. I’m very introvert and tend to enjoy activities that don’t involve doing wild things with lots of other people pointing cameras at me. I don’t need much external stimulation and I won’t get bored sitting doing nothing but thinking. I can get excited just writing up a new idea or reading about one. I do self-censor my writing and talks though I’d rather not have to, but other than that I don’t feel I need to alter my activity in case someone is watching. There are pluses and minuses, but more pluses for me.

On the other hand, people who are more extrovert may find it a bigger burden having to avoid exciting situations and suffer a bigger drop in quality of life.

Certainly younger people want to try new things, they want to share exciting situations with other people, many want to get drunk occasionally, some might want to experiment with drugs, and some want to take part in political demonstrations.  and would suffer more than older ones who have already done so. It is a sad consequence of new technology if they feel they can’t in case it destroys their career prospects.

The only ways to recover an atmosphere of casual unpunished experimentation would be either to prevent sharing of photos or videos or chat, basically to ban most of what social networks do, and even the people affected probably don’t want to do that, or to make it possible and easy to have any photos or records of your activity removed. That would be better but still leaves problems. There is no obvious easy solution.

If we can’t, and we almost certainly won’t, then many of our brightest young people will feel shackled, oppressed, unable to let their hair down properly, unable to experience the joy of life that all preceding generations took for granted. It’s an aspect of the privacy debate that needs aired much more. Is it a price worth paying to get the cheap short-lived thrill of laughing at someone else’s embarrassment? I’m not sure it is.