Artificial intelligence: an option against loneliness during the pandemic

Since the beginning of 2020, confinement has become one of the most effective ways to combat the spread of the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). However, this measure brought with it serious consequences for people’s mental health, especially enhancing the feeling of loneliness.

To alleviate this situation, the World Health Organization (WHO) together with mental health experts, proposed to stop calling this type of preventive measures social distancing, and opt for the name “physical distancing.”

The change in these words is because “it is important to remain physically separate, but socially connected,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the WHO.

Many experts also began to evaluate the effects of artificial intelligences (AI) using chatbots or chat bots, L

In recent years, the use of chatbots was mainly aimed at facilitating communication between companies and their customers in a fast, efficient and personalized way.

It is common for them to be used in customer service, to manage purchases and payments or to send information about company news.

With the arrival of the pandemic, the waiting lists to access mental health facilities grew rapidly, so many researchers proposed a “twist” in the application of chatbots, allocating it to therapeutic or telehealth use.

“We are fortunate to be able to be connected online during this period. [pandemia] and we are likely to see the rise in technology adoption continue, even after distancing measures are removed, ”said David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky, an international company dedicated to computer security.

“When used safely, the digital and online tools at our disposal can offer a great remedy for loneliness,” he added in a report published by Kaspersky, on the importance of staying connected during the pandemic to combat loneliness.

How AI helps us

To direct the operation or “behavior” of AIs, programmers use algorithms and scripts, and thus achieve that they produce phrases in response to user messages, automatically.

Programmers work with writers to determine what kind of punctuation, emoji use, and even pun the bot can use.

The pandemic caused many people to feel lonely and sad. | Photo: GettyImages.

Thus, the programmer can train an AI to recognize certain keywords, for example, “depressed”, “sadness”, “alone” or “anguish”, and interrogate the user by means of questions to find out the origin of those sensations.

These scripts, as explained in a post by The Conversation, replicate a common tactic in cognitive behavioral therapy: ask questions. AI therapy bots encourage people to vent their frustrations and then ask them to reflect on those experiences or emotions.

Experts note that even when the bot’s response is broad or unspecific, people can find the process of writing or expressing their thoughts cathartic.

More studies are still needed to see if chatbots are useful for alleviating loneliness, or others mental problems such as anxiety or depression, although everything seems to indicate that they are effective.

They can communicate with numerous users simultaneously, making it a great tool for people looking to express themselves quickly and anonymously.

It is important to remember that chatbots are not an alternative or replacement for therapists or health professionals, and should only function as a supplement against mental and emotional disorders or problems.

Consequences of loneliness on health

Loneliness is a state of isolation, which can be due to one’s own choice, imposition, contagious diseases, mental health problems or emotional disorders.

Everyone at some point can experience episodes of short-term loneliness. The problem occurs when these begin to become chronic, promoting the appearance of symptoms that affect health and make it difficult to get out of this condition.

There is evidence linking loneliness with higher levels of cortisol in the body, a hormone that is produced when the body is under stress, and its presence can lead to certain problems over time:

  • Substance abuse.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Depression.
  • Cardiovascular diseases.
  • Hypertension.
  • Inflammation.
  • Increased risk of suicide.
  • Attention problems.
  • Overweight or obese
  • Sleep disorders.

Much research found that chronic loneliness could also have a strong impact on brain function, limiting some cognitive abilities, such as:

  • Concentration.
  • Memory
  • Decision making or problem solving.
  • It was also linked to an increased risk of developing dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s.

RememberLoneliness should not be simplified to feeling lonely, if left unchecked it can eventually cause serious physical and emotional problems.

Sources consulted: American Psychological Association, US National Library of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, National Institute of Mental Health, World Health Organization.

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