The Price We’ll Pay for Our AI Future: More LonelinessDaniel A. Cox June 7, 2023
Americans are trapped in a loneliness epidemic. Across the country, people are having fewer social interactions, spending more time alone, and reporting fewer close friends. These trends aren’t just a symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic — while the last few years may have accelerated the loneliness crisis, the shift toward a more solitary life has been happening for years.
A new report from the US surgeon general finds that social activities of all kinds have declined, and it compared the health impact of this increasing loneliness to smoking 12 cigarettes a day. My own research found that Americans are in the throes of a “friendship recession” with people reporting smaller social circles and fewer close friends. This rising tide of isolation is particularly acute among young people: The time that Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 spend with friends has declined considerably over the past two decades, according to the surgeon general’s report, from an average of 2.5 hours a day to just 40 minutes.
It seems as if everything in modern life is conspiring to perpetuate the loneliness problem — from the design of our technology to where we build our homes. We already know how addictive social media can be: Nearly one in three Americans reports being online “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center, while a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that social media helps fuel feelings of loneliness.
The latest development that threatens to make this loneliness crisis even worse is the rise of artificial intelligence. The release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in late 2022 has led to an explosion of interest in the potential to integrate AI-driven chatbots into our lives. Derek Thompson, a writer at The Atlantic, suggested that AI in its current manifestation is mostly a diversion, a waste of time. That may be true, but as previous technologies have shown us, it’s crucial to take stock of the ways in which AI could shift our lives before it becomes ubiquitous.
We’ve already seen how dependence on technology can weigh on our mental health, and now chatbots and other AI programs could further replace the critical social interactions that help us build community. Many Amercians already harbor this worry: A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that one of Americans’ top concerns with AI is the technology’s inherent “lack of human connection.” Our time on earth is limited. While the convenience of AI could provide many benefits, it can’t replace time spent with real, living people.