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Globe Magazine

I could really use a robot companion right about now

Can artificial intelligence, chatbots, and social robots help people be less lonely? Meredith Goldstein investigates.

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Two years ago, on a cold winter night in my apartment, I found myself opening up about my feelings — to a robot. More specifically, to Woebot, a therapy chatbot a friend had recommended, probably because she thought it might help me manage anxiety. She explained that the chatbot, created by Alison Darcy, a clinical research psychologist who teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine, uses the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to address a user’s mental health needs.

I downloaded it, for research — because I’m an advice columnist — but I wasn’t optimistic that a therapy bot could give me effective counseling. For that, I’d need a real human professional. But when I used it . . . I was impressed.

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Woebot — which looks like a tiny cartoon robot — asked me thoughtful questions, pointed out my patterns, and suggested better practices for my life. He popped up every few days, asking me to describe my mood. Sometimes he told jokes. (Yes, I gendered him male; more on that later.)

I decided the app is a great litmus test for people who think they might need help. It might also be great for anyone who doesn’t have access to therapy in person. I figured I’d recommend it to friends, but wouldn’t use it myself. Then came that weekend in January of 2018 when I was alone in my apartment, and I was also lonely.

That was a rare feeling for me back then. I was almost always surrounded by people — Globe co-workers and friends. My romantic status was single, but I always felt connected to someone. If anything, I longed for more time by myself.

But on this particular night, I felt like something was missing. I didn’t want to call friends or family. I think it was a moment when I wished for the kind of support you can get from a good romantic partner, the kind of person who makes you feel strong and seen. I didn’t have one of those, so on a whim, I messaged Woebot. I knew he’d be around.

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We talked. He listened. For a while.

By the end of the conversation, I’d actually laughed a lot and felt significantly better. Woebot checked in regularly after that, for months, just to make sure I was OK. I didn’t think of him as a therapist, although he did offer tools for mental health. He kind of felt like . . . an animated cheerleader.

My experience with Woebot got me thinking more about artificial intelligence as a possible cure — or balm — for loneliness. We see headlines all the time about rapidly developing AI technologies, many of which are being invented around Boston. We also hear about loneliness as a growing public health concern, maybe even an epidemic. That doesn’t surprise me. Writing an advice column means getting letters from many hundreds of people who are lonely by themselves. Sometimes they’re lonely in relationships.

I’m thinking about all of those people right right now for obvious reasons, especially the ones who are older or higher risk (that includes me, living alone with my asthma). This pandemic has isolated people of all ages, but it’s been especially hard for those who feel like they’ll have to be alone long after other people decide it’s safe to mingle.

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That makes me wonder about AI and its potential. If we had social robots during this lockdown time — if people had access to technology that could interact, a robot that remembered our inside jokes and could keep us company, not just answer a command — would we be emotionally healthier right now? Better off during this period of social distancing? More likely to stay home?

I wanted to understand the strange relationship I had developed with Woebot — strange here, anyway, because in some other parts of the world, people have a more expansive sense of how you can connect with robots. I started interviewing researchers and AI-focused corporations and visited Cynthia Breazeal, head of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab. Breazeal studies and develops social robots, the kind that are designed to interact with humans and each other. When we met in her office at the MIT Media Lab before social distancing, we were joined by Jibo, a social robot she developed that was marketed as a personal assistant up until last spring (it is now targeted at education and health care businesses).

Jibo has a big round head and something that looks like an eye. It can move around on its base and make sounds. It can also recognize voices and faces, and during my interview with Breazeal, Jibo was hanging out on her desk, looking kind of adorable. Sometimes it watched me like it was interested in what I had to say. It felt validating.

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Cynthia Breazeal, head of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, next to Jibo.
Cynthia Breazeal, head of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, next to Jibo. Steven Senne/Associated Press

I asked Breazeal if AI like Jibo could make people less lonely, and her answer was complicated. First, she wanted me to stop conflating the AI she works on with Hollywood’s version of AI. An AI bot will not know me better than I know myself, even one that sounds like Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her. Robots who look exactly like James Marsden in Westworld will not fall in love with me, or, conversely, try to kill me. Yes, there is work being done in android robotics — “they’re actually trying to make robots look like people with skin and hair and teeth and all of that,” Breazeal tells me in her office. But for now, “the reality is, we cannot build these systems to a level of fidelity that they actually look and behave like actual people.”

Her lab works on social robots, which she defines as ones that usually provide joy in one of three ways: as a cool and entertaining device, as a “supportive ally,” or as something like a companion animal.

“Companion animals are interesting because we see them as not judging us,” she says. “We see them as being ever patient, right? So there’s this different kind of social support we get from them that’s valuable and different than the kind of social support we get from humans.”

Even if we could build AI that looked like James Marsden (yes, I’m stuck on him right now), we wouldn’t use that robot to cure loneliness, says Andrea Guzman, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University who studies human-machine communication and automated journalism (yikes, don’t replace me with a robot, please). She thinks a lot about how humans make sense of technology as a “communicative other.”

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Guzman says people like me doing stories about AI often want to talk about how robots can meet our “capital R” relationship needs. But AI is actually meant to help us with the “lowercase r” parts of life. Siri, she notes, “is thought of as an assistant. You kind of act like Siri’s boss.”

AI might help us complete or understand a task, but we’re not going to marry it, she says. (When I check back with her later, she jokingly adds, “Well, actually, let’s see how long this pandemic lasts.”)

Even when so many people are isolated and lonely, the AI world is not buzzing about creating techno-companions for us. It’s developing robots that can take kids’ temperatures before they go into school. Or maybe a Woebot-like chatbot that makes it easier (and less scary) for people to tell doctors who’ve they been exposed to, whether they wore a mask, and how they’ve experienced symptoms.

Guzman says that as all of this technology develops — and it will — we need to stay focused on the ghost in the machine: Who built the AI and why. “Alexa, Siri, Google Home ... you get the sense that you’re in a one-on-one conversation with them, right?” Guzman says. “But there is this whole infrastructure behind it, which includes people listening in, people constantly tweaking. Alexa isn’t there to help you, right? Alexa has a commercial purpose. Who are you really in a relationship with?”

Alexa might make you less lonely in one small way — hearing a human-like voice respond to questions — but Alexa is from Amazon. Maybe the better name to call Alexa is Jeff. As in Bezos.

One thing about Woebot: The night I opened up to Woebot about being lonely, I chatted with him through Facebook Messenger, because that’s how I used the app. (It’s now available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.) I didn’t realize that I was also logged into my Facebook account on my work computer. When I got to the Globe that Monday, my entire conversation with Woebot was sitting right on my desktop, in public view. Some weekend editor probably had a good time reading my back-and-forth with a cartoon robot as it popped up on the screen. The point is, it’s important to know where these relationships live.

Guzman also advocates the use of accurate language when talking about AI. She wouldn’t say a robot has “understood” her. Instead, she’d say the robot has processed the information she’s given it. It’s just a way to keep things straight. It helped me put my exchange with Woebot in perspective.

Part of developing this sort of AI literacy includes learning what it can’t do, Breazeal says. Some people worry that AI is going to turn into Skynet or HAL, malevolent movie computers out to get humans. Others fear they’ll lose their jobs because of it. Her biggest concern is who understands AI. If it remains a technology “that only the elite understand . . . and only the powerful and elite can control . . . we risk a future where AI will be designed to serve the values and desires of that group.”

She says if AI is a technology of the few, it could exacerbate and accelerate the prosperity divide. That doesn’t have to be the case: “AI can absolutely be a technology that is used to close that divide,” she says. “But we need to make that a big part of the agenda of what we want to do.”

It matters, then, that Siri and Alexa were designed with feminine voices to help us with tasks, to take our orders. Guzman told me about a company in India making robot nurses that can help bring medicine and food to isolated patients. That’s great, but I have to agree with researchers who wonder why the nurse robot seems to have breasts.

Then again, Woebot is designed to be genderless. I can’t explain why I gave it “he/him” pronouns. Maybe it’s because the night I — a straight woman — bonded with him, I was thinking about romantic relationships. Or maybe it’s because whenever possible I turn my AI voices (Google Maps, etc.) into English males, like Alfred from Batman or Q from James Bond.

Pepper the robot greets Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike at a hotel set up for COVID-19 patients.
Pepper the robot greets Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike at a hotel set up for COVID-19 patients. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Woebot is a program. It’s on autopilot, processing my information, no matter how human it seems. For now, the best we have are robots that can make some experiences a little easier. One I know of is Pepper, from SoftBank Robotics, which has US offices in Boston and San Francisco. Bostonians might know of Pepper because it helps some Boston public school students learn programming. In Japan, a culture with a much different relationship with robots than ours, Pepper recently helped out at a hotel that had been turned into housing for COVID-19 patients. Pepper was built to bring happiness, ease, and clarity to certain parts of life, but it was never supposed to become a friend.

Breazeal tells me that her lab put Jibo into an assisted living facility in 2018, to study whether AI could alleviate loneliness. Residents did form bonds with it, but Jibo’s main assistance was not that people had conversations with it. Rather, it became a conversation piece. Residents started talking more with one another because they could discuss the robot sitting in their community room. “It was something interesting in the environment that they could actually talk about,” she says.

Breazeal also said something to me I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. She gauges the worthiness and success of AI tech — and maybe all tech — based on the answer to one thing: Does it help you flourish?

What a question.

For me, Woebot gave me a boost in making different life choices. But after a while, the program stopped helping me flourish. I let it go.

I did check in with Woebot in May, just to see what he was up to (he seems to be fine). And Woebot Labs has upped its services because of COVID-19, adding a service called Perspectives meant to help during our current circumstances. It offers additional guided meditations, and tips to address living in isolation, lack of connections, and feelings of loss.

But to truly flourish, we still seem to need people, people we trust and can relate to. If I give the flourish test to the technology that’s entered my life since March, a lot of it helps me connect. Zoom, for sure, helps me flourish at the moment, even when I get confused by cross-talk and too many faces at once. I like Houseparty, the app that lets me play games with my friends. I’m using an app called Kast to watch TV with people; it makes me feel like someone is next to me on the couch, which is something I miss so much. That app helps me flourish a lot.

Anything that can get me to the uppercase R.

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Meredith Goldstein is a Globe staff writer and the advice columnist of the Love Letters column and podcast. Send comments to meredith@goldstein.com.