Loneliness and Artificial Intelligence: A Looming Crisis in Mental Health
Modern society is enraptured by the prospect of technological progress. We focus on the increased convenience, connectivity, and sheer shininess of the new, even to the point of disparaging critics as luddites. Today, we are on the cusp of a revolution in artificial intelligence and automation (Frey & Osborne, 2017, 255); this transformation will have implications for human relations and may exacerbate one of today’s most pressing problems—loneliness. Loneliness is a key risk factor for mental health disorders and a prognostic factor in determining mental health outcomes; rates of which have been cited as one in five in Canada (Star Editorial Board, 2018).
There are many instances in human history where societal transformations have impacted psychological wellbeing. Drawing on the missteps of the past will help us avoid errors in the future. I’ll begin this paper by briefly highlighting how mental health management in the 20th century suffered because major social changes over the centuries prior were not adequately managed. I will then discuss future technological changes and their possible implications for mental health; finally, I will suggest some measures physicians can take to approach the challenges of tomorrow.
Modernity, Urbanization, and Mental Health
Western modernity has changed the nature of relationships. Communitarian structures of indigenous North American societies and medieval Europe, inculcated a sacred culture of shared responsibility that insulated individuals from bearing psychological distress and life’s hardships alone (Muir & Bohr, 2014, 67) (Hovden et al., 99). The extended family—not the individual or the nuclear family was considered to be society’s building block. Over the past three centuries, the modern nation state upended medieval social structures in Europe and appropriated North American lands previously inhabited by indigenous peoples. These modern states became heavily influenced by a business elite made rich in part through the early industrial revolution of the mid 1700s (Polanyi, 1957, 135). Economic productivity necessitated the centralization of human beings which resulted in mass urbanization, and thus a move away from rural communities. In place of the community, mental health concerns had to be managed by the nuclear family and nation state. The nuclear family, overwhelmed by the responsibility of mental health challenges looked to the nation state which resorted to mass incarceration, heralding the ignominious phase of “psychiatric institutionalism”. Individuals suffering with mental illness were held in confinement en masse often without the hope of re-integrating into society (Chow & Priebe, 2013, 1). Mental health struggles were stigmatized. Over the last five decades, tremendous efforts have been made to create mental health support groups, train mental health counsellors, and open up space for mental health to be discussed within various public and private institutions. This effort has unfortunately come too late for many. Clinicians of today should proactively consider how future societal changes will impact mental health if the blunders of the past are to be avoided.
Future Technological Changes and Mental Health
In the last two decades, the internet, social media, and smart phones have changed relationships once more. We know more people, but have fewer deep ties—bonding through “likes”, texts, and tweets over substantive conversation. We connect online not to nuanced human beings but to shallow, airbrushed profiles that portray exciting lives seemingly bursting with joy. Even in person relationships have been impeded quite literally, as we stare into our smart phones enamoured by the superfluous happenings of social media, and unwittingly alienate ourselves from those immediately around us. We are now witnessing the rise of a new technological era that will likely accentuate loneliness in contemporary life. This includes more automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence in driving, delivery services, internet based education/courses, restaurants, household cleaning services, and even intimate relationships.
The implications of these changes in the realm of social interaction may be that human relationships that emerge as a by-product of essential or nearly essential human action—such as commerce, education, and leisure will be eroded. Despite the added convenience, there could be substantive alterations to social ties. For example, will social isolation become exacerbated when the elderly can go about their day with less reliance on sentient human beings? How will intimate relationships be impacted if romantic human interaction can be achieved through artificial intelligence? What will it mean for mental health if there is less engagement with peers at higher education campuses because of online courses/degrees? What will be the impact of drastic changes in workplaces leading to layoffs and fewer interactions in physical spaces?
As technology mediates changes in relationships, the long term mental health implications remain to be seen. Nevertheless, it is important to have a pragmatic picture of how social relationships will be altered by technology so that clinicians can mitigate and harness its effects. Public awareness campaigns can elucidate the mental health risks of loneliness as well as identify periods of vulnerability such as after child birth, loss of employment, or the passing of loved ones. Physicians can begin to screen for loneliness, especially as one gets older, and a greater emphasis can be put on in person group interaction for individuals who may not suffer from mental illness but need social support. While human beings tend to have an innate drive to be social, we also have competing drives to be “un-social”—to avoid embarrassment, to save time, to skirt the efforts of making face to face connections with strangers. Disorders of mood, anxiety, and more can thrive on loneliness and making deliberate efforts to bring people together might just be an antidote.
Chow, W. S., & Priebe, S. (2013). Understanding Psychiatric Institutionalization: A Conceptual Review. BMC Psychiatry,13(1), 1-14. doi:10.1186/1471-244x-13-169
Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2017). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change,114(C), 254-280. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.019
Hovden, E., Lutter, C., & Pohl, W. (Eds.). (2016). Meanings of Community across Medieval Eurasia: Comparative Approaches. LEIDEN; BOSTON: Brill. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76w6c
Muir, N., & Bohr, Y. (2014). Contemporary Practice of Traditional Aboriginal Child Rearing: A Review. First People’s Child and Family Review,9(1), 66-79. Retrieved May 19, 2018.
Polyani, K. (1957). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.
Star Editorial Board. (2018, January 21). Governments Should Tackle Growing Problem of Loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/01/21/governments-should-tackle-growing-problem-of-loneliness.html