Bold Business Logo

Fighting Loneliness with a Digital Friend – AI Chatbots to the Rescue

For years now, many of us have become accustomed to talking to our devices. Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are at our beck and call to help us solve an array of dilemmas. In the process, these digital companions have slowly socialized us into accepting this as a normal part of life. Therefore, it’s not surprising that some companies are exploring how machine-based personalities might provide additional benefits. And one of these ways involves the use of AI chatbots.

Over the last several months, lockdowns and social distancing have forced most of us to becomes increasingly isolated. We miss our friends and gatherings, and often, we look for any activity that might help loneliness. While videoconferencing tools have helped to a degree at work, some people need more in their personal lives. And this is where AI chatbots appear to be filling a void. But it’s important to realize that these digital friends are not perfect. Knowing their benefits and their potential harms is important in order to get the most out of these intriguing innovations.

“We are all spending so much time behind our screens, it is not surprising that when we get a chance to talk to a machine, we take it.” – Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

AI Chatbots On the Rise

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers tremendous potential for many industries. Certainly, this includes the development of chatbots, which are already appearing in our everyday lives. Many commercial websites now have AI chatbots that facilitate online dialogue and purchasing. In fact, one of the hottest new jobs is helping create content for these AI chatbots to use in such settings. At the same time, other industries including health and hospitality sectors are also finding uses for these digital solutions. But none of these are specifically designed to help loneliness or offer companionship. This is changing, however.

Someone talking to an AI chatbot on their phone
Do you have any AI chatbot friends? No? Then give it some time.

At the height of the lockdown, millions of people turned to AI chatbots as a means to help loneliness. Some companies reported their volume of users doubling during this time as people isolated at home explored these options. Despite understanding that these AI chatbots were simply machines, users embraced these technologies as their new friends. And many describe them as being critical to their wellbeing during this time. Based on these developments, some companies are already developing similar digital platforms for help loneliness in the elderly. All of this has created a renewed sense of excitement surrounding AI chatbots for personal use.

“The way that these AI systems condition us to behave in regard to gender very much spills over into how people end up interacting with other humans, which is why we make design choices to reinforce good human behavior.” – Lauren Kunze, CEO of Pandorabots

The Struggles and Landscape of Modern AI Chatbots

AI chatbots develop by absorbing tremendous amounts of data combined with ongoing learning from its user conversations. In most cases, film and television scripts are used to “educate” AI chatbots on conversational dialogue. However, inputs from users create ongoing learning. Because this can introduce user biases, these digital companions can incorporate prejudices into its reactions as well. The risk of this is even higher when social media is used, where slang and highly opinionated comments are present. A few years ago, Microsoft had to take its AI chatbot product Tay off the market because of these issues.

Despite these challenges, Microsoft as well as other newer companies are advancing AI chatbots to help loneliness and provide companionship. Microsoft’s latest product is Xiaolce, which is being used by millions in China to help loneliness. Microsoft had similar AI chatbots in the US and Japan (Zo and Rinna respectively), but these are currently on hold. Microsoft is also developing what they hope to be virtual girlfriends through these platforms in the future. The company is actively researching uses that go beyond the traditional efforts to help loneliness.

Microsoft is not the only game in town however. Replika, an AI product produced by Luka, now has over 7 million users. The 3-year-old, San Francisco-based company uses an open-AI platform and user feedback to improve the quality of its AI chatbots. Users can name their companion anything they like while using it as an expressive outlet or even a romantic relationship. Pandorabots is another California-based producer of AI chatbots with its main product being Mitsuku. Though designed to help loneliness, many use Mitsuku as a romantic replacement at times. Each of these companies are seeing significant increases in their user base.

“Certain things you can’t control fully. In certain contexts, the bot will give advice that actually goes against a therapeutic relationship. We explain to users that this is a work in progress and that they can flag anything they don’t like.” – Eugenia Kuyda, Founder and CEO of Luka

A Future Role in Therapeutics

Based on recent statistics, social isolation undermines health, particularly in the elderly. Isolation is linked to a 26 percent increase in mortality in this age range. Likewise, it increases the risk of demented by 64 percent as well. Therefore, therapeutics that can help loneliness have notable implications for out well-being. Understanding this, some researchers in Canada are already developing AI chatbots for this purpose. But others see the potential of AI chatbots to help loneliness as being much more pervasive.

Not all therapists agree that AI chatbots are the solution to help loneliness and personal isolation. Some are concerned that AI chatbots may simply tell you what you want to hear. From this perspective, personal growth and learning would be hindered. Others express worry that AI chatbots might introduce increased social biases in society while molding behaviors in unfavorable ways. While these are valid concerns, however, industry leaders are striving to resolve these issues through ongoing development. AI chatbots are clearly a work in progress. But many expect these digital companions to be an ever-increasing presence in our lives over the next decade.

The Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine – Vaccine Manufacturers Take Different Approaches

Many hoped the summer, along with its warmer weather, would bring better news for a pandemic-stricken nation. But as states launch reopenings, the number of coronavirus infections are rising in a number of areas. This, combined with many health experts anticipating a second wave of infections in the fall and winter, is notably concerning. As a result, a greater emphasis is being placed on the development of an effective coronavirus vaccine. And more than a dozen vaccine manufacturers are doing all they can to achieve this goal as soon as possible.

Despite these efforts, many question whether the development of a coronavirus vaccine within the year is even feasible. In the past, such a feat would have been impossible. But several companies are pursuing innovative approaches that could completely change the landscape for vaccine manufacturers of the future. If their gambles pay off, then the pipeline for new vaccine development could be dramatically shortened forever. From this perspective, the race for a coronavirus vaccine has public health implications that span well beyond the current pandemic. And because of this, the stakes for vaccine manufacturers are even higher.

“Because we have a number of these [vaccine trials], and they all use a different strategy, I am optimistic that at least one, maybe two, maybe three will come through looking like what we need. We want to hedge our bets by having a number of different approaches, so that it’s very likely that at least one of them — and maybe more — will work.” – Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health

Vaccine Manufacturers Explore Disruptive Technologies

From a historical perspective, vaccine manufacturers have explored a few ways to produce vaccines. In some cases, small pieces of living viruses are administered to trigger an immune response without causing an infection. In other instances, a killed virus might serve to do the same thing. These strategies worked well for a number of early vaccines developed in decades past. But as pathogens have evolved, these methods have become less effective. This is particularly true for viral diseases that get inside human cells to cause infection. Because the viral particles are inside cells, the immune system may not recognize the cells as being infected until later. This is one reason why developing a coronavirus vaccine is so challenging. It’s also why disruptive technologies are needed.

A scientist in full protective gear uses a microscope
How soon will it take for a coronavirus vaccine to be developed? Hopefully not long!

One solution to this problem has been to make a vaccine out of a virus that is very weak or ineffective. The virus contains the antigen that triggers the immune response needed, but the virus itself is unable to cause any harm. Vaccine manufacturers call this a “non-replicating viral vector,” and it has been one recent strategy used. Specifically, the flu shot that most of us receive each year is this type of vaccine. And some current vaccine manufacturers are pursuing similar strategies for a coronavirus vaccine. While this may be effective, this approach is time consuming. Because virus particles must be cultured, the process generally takes years to ramp up even if found to be effective.

Due to the urgency associated with a coronavirus vaccine development, a number of vaccine manufacturers are trying more novel approaches. In fact, several leading companies are trying to develop a vaccine using a messenger RNA (mRNA) protein. Messenger RNA is responsible for making proteins and antigens within cells. Thus, the hope is to give a specific mRNA that causes cells to produce a specific viral antigen. Using this approach, immune protection against a virus would develop in response to the antigen without ever having to be exposed to the actual virus. Not only is this promising because of this, but mRNA vaccines would be much faster and easier to produce. As a result, several vaccine manufacturers are employing this strategy in their coronavirus vaccine efforts.

“Since RNA vaccines are a disruptive technology as they do not require cell culture, utilize synthetic delivery, and have a smaller manufacturing footprint, our partnership with PNI to advance a mRNA-LNP vaccine candidate will not only help accelerate the process, but will also potentially revolutionize the vaccine industry.” – Xuefeng Yu, Ph.D., Cofounder, Chairman and CEO of CanSino Biologics

Major Candidates for an Effective Coronavirus Vaccine

In total, there are over 120 candidate coronavirus vaccines currently being considered. However, only 10 research pharmaceutical companies and partnerships have active trials ongoing. Of these, four are within the U.S., five are within China, and one is in the U.K. Some of the more noteworthy ones involve the following:

  • Moderna – This company is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is among the smallest company leading the pack. It has partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in making a mRNA coronavirus vaccine. Not only does its results from animal studies look promising. Moderna is also ramping up manufacturing efforts even before its vaccine is proven effective and safe.
  • AstraZeneca – Based in the U.K., AstraZeneca is well known among vaccine manufacturers. Its coronavirus vaccine approach involves a non-replicating viral vector rather than a mRNA type. But it has tremendous resources and has partnered with the University of Oxford in its efforts. As a result, its vaccine trials are moving along quickly as well.
  • CanSino Biologics – Based in China, this company has partnered with the Beijing Institute of Biotechnologies. Its animal studies have also demonstrated progress, and it is running neck-and-neck with Moderna for the lead among vaccine manufacturers. Interestingly, CanSino began pursuing a non-replicating viral vector vaccine. But since, it has partnered with Precision Nanosystems to create a mRNA vaccine as well. CanSino is clearly hedging its bets.
  • Pfizer/BioNTech – The partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech formed in an effort to pursue a nano-particle mRNA coronavirus vaccine quickly. Pfizer was also listed among the five companies receiving funding from President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed program. Their current vaccine candidate is already in phase I and phase II trials. Given its extensive financial resources and R&D capabilities, Pfizer is also considered one of the top vaccine manufacturers to succeed.
  • CureVac – Another leader among vaccine manufacturers is the German-based pharmaceutical company CureVac. Germany is highly invested in CureVac’s efforts, and its animal trials are showing great promise. In fact, its mRNA coronavirus vaccine produced high levels of protective antibodies against COVID-19 in these experiments. Likewise, CureVac is also prepared to produce hundreds of millions of vaccines if its candidate is proven effective and safe.

Big Problem, Big Money, Tremendous Anticipation

In total, it has been estimated that over $4.4 billion has already been awarded vaccine manufacturers from governments and philanthropists. Likewise, companies that develop an effective coronavirus vaccine will be in a favorable position financially for years to come. Given the economic impact of the pandemic, all nations wait in eager anticipation for such a vaccine to arrive. Though the timing of its arrival remains uncertain, it’s clear companies are making bold strides in developing a coronavirus vaccine. All in all, the progress looks to be quite favorable.