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Only the Lonely

If you’ve seen Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, the prospect of forming an intimate and meaningful relationship with artificial intelligence might not seem too far-fetched... 

For in the not-too-distant future, we find our protagonist — a lonely, depressed and introverted individual named Theodore Twombly (played by Phoenix) — seeking solace from a female-voiced virtual assistant to numb the pain of his impending divorce. Samantha — as he calls her — talks life, love and all things between, prompting a smitten Twombly to declare “her” his girlfriend, much to the chagrin of his former flame. 

A cartoon featuring an old-fashioned computer with arms raised, positioned below three movie posters: "I, Robot,", "A.I." and "Her," set against a bright yellow background.

Thirty years ago, the film’s premise would reside firmly in the realms of science fiction — an entertaining notion, but ultimately unrealistic that any computer could ever take the place of a real human connection. Today, however, the lines between man and machine are significantly blurrier.

Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google. These omniscient, omnipresent assistants have changed our home lives beyond recognition. Gone are the days of checking the latest weather forecast on Ceefax, or manually setting your alarm clock before bed. Instead, we only need to ask a question out loud to get an instantaneous answer.


But what if the replies given aren’t merely functional, but conversational and thought-provoking? Is there a role for AI in combatting chronic loneliness? And if so, what does it look like?

When it comes to AI, I’m firmly in the camp that believes it can change our lives beyond recognition and providing companionship for isolated or older members of our society plays a part in that.

For many elderly people — perhaps with spouses who have passed away or with family that don’t live close by — voice assistants could prove invaluable. Through simple voice commands, they can already keep up-to-date with the latest news and ask questions. But it is surely only a matter of time before they’ll be able to hold full-blown conversations as their computerised counterparts develop a “personality” — their own likes, dislikes and what not.

It is not unusual for elderly folk to struggle with interfaces due to reduced mobility, poor eyesight or lack of understanding.


According to, the 55-64 age bracket has consistently seen the lowest usage of smartphones in the UK between 2012 and 2017, and although adoption has risen dramatically during that time (from a mere 9% in 2012 to 64% in 2017), the figures lag significantly behind younger age groups by as much as 29%.

It is perhaps telling that the statistics are limited to age 64 — certainly still a “young” age relative to the growing number of the population living well into their 80s and 90s. In 2017, there were more than 11.9 million individuals in the UK aged 65 and over, with 579,776 aged 90 and older. 

A cartoon of a person interacting with a smart speaker via voice commands.

For a less tech-savvy generation, iPhones, smart TVs and tablets may feel like a step too far. They may appear fiddly, complicated and overwhelming. Using your voice, however, is the most instinctual and natural means of communication for the majority.

Speaking a sentence out loud to receive a well-informed, instantaneous response is both simple and gratifying. Add to that a sense that the responder actually cares about you and your welfare — achieved through tone of voice, inquisitiveness, laughter, personalisation and so on — and you’ve got a winning combination. 

Indeed, I feel the personalisation aspect is key here. Care home residents, for example, are unlikely to want to engage with a curt, matter-of-fact tone. The ability to choose their companion’s voice — beyond the simple gender and accent choices available with Siri, for instance — would be an invaluable asset. Using slower speech to aid comprehension for those that are hard of hearing would surely be a benefit to many. Likewise, a voice assistant that speaks in warm, calming and soothing tones — something many older people may not encounter for hours, days or even weeks at a time. 


In this regard, it’s not hard to see why Phoenix’s character becomes enamoured with his computer in Her. It’s not what Johansson says, but how she says it. In 2014, website The Psych Report conducted tests to this effect, examining two different types of voice: those with natural paralinguistic cues — loudness, pitch and rhythm typical of human language — and those with reduced paralinguistic cues.  

Professional actors were asked to read samples of writing out loud twice about important life decisions. Firstly, by imagining they were the person who wrote the text (therefore speaking with a “natural voice”), and then again but without feeling — reading the words exactly as they saw them on the page.

The results were fascinating:

"Only the natural voices seemed more human than the text, not the flat voices. Critically, the effect of communication medium on judgment of humanness was fully explained by the amount of pitch variance in actors’ voices — and not by any other of the paralinguistic cues. This suggests that one reason why voices convey humanness is because of their variance in pitch. That is, speakers naturally modulate their voice pitch — their voices becoming higher and lower as they speak — and this pitch modulation could be an important aspect of how people express their mental states to others."

Director Jonze infamously replaced original cast member Samantha Morton with Scarlett Johannsson, but did so months after filming had completed. Whilst undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for Morton — the Oscar-winning film was nominated for five Academy Awards and three Golden Globes — it’s interesting to consider Jonze’s thought process. Replacing the voice at such a late stage in production was a huge gamble with big ramifications for costs, timings and the personal pride of his original star, but it goes to show how vital a part voices play in our lives. 

An image featuring two voice-activated smart speakers. The right one is an Amazon Echo Dot.

As things stand, we’re at least a few years (or decades?) away from experiencing a true “Her” effect. Alexa and co are getting smarter every day; error rates are declining and the bank of responses to our incessant questioning could expand exponentially. But Alexa doesn’t feel human to us — yet. 

At the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in 2017, research was presented that underlined the connection between loneliness and premature death.

At the convention, two meta-analyses on the effects of social connection on health were presented by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.

According to Fortune:

"The first analysis looked at 148 studies involving more than 300,000 people and found that people with social connections had a 50% lower risk of dying early compared to people who did not have strong social circles. The other analysis of 70 studies found that loneliness, isolation, and living alone all had a significant effect on a person’s risk for early death. The researchers suggested that the impact was similar to the effect that obesity has on mortality rates."

The figures are shocking to say the least and I’ll be the first to admit I was taken aback. As someone who rarely has a moment to myself between work conference calls, meetings and family life, I’m thankfully far from isolated but loneliness can strike in even the busiest of rooms.

Perhaps there’s a role for advanced AI in more than just care homes. Maybe it would be easier for bullied children to confide in a machine than it is to a teacher or parent. Perhaps those with social anxiety could gain confidence through conversing with their digital companion, or help expats and immigrants learn a new language to better assimilate to their new home. 

Whichever way you look at it, the Bob Hoskins BT advert was definitely on to something back in the 90s — it’s good to talk! 


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