Humans are inherently social animals, and our health suffers if we're cut off from social ties. So it's no wonder the so-called loneliness "epidemic" is being called a public health crisis. But as we sit on the cusp of massive technological advances, the near future could exacerbate this growing problem.
Loneliness can happen to anyone. It is indiscriminate of age, country, and social status. In Britain, more than one in eight people say they don't consider anyone a close friend, and the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades. A large proportion of the lonely are young; almost two-thirds of 16- to 24-year-old Brits said they feel lonely at least some of the time, while almost a third are lonely often or all the time.
One pervasive source of our loneliness is technology. While it offers an easy way to keep in contact with friends — and meet new people through dating and friendship apps — technology's omnipresence encourages shallow conversations that can distract us from meaningful, real-life, interactions. Researchers at the University of Essex found that having a phone nearby, even if we don't check it, can be detrimental to our attempts at connecting with others. Smartphones have transformed post office lines from a chance for some small-talk with the neighbors to an exercise in email-checking, and sealed the fate of coffee shops as nothing more than places of mutual isolation. And technology will only become more ingrained in our lives.
By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world's population will be living in so-called "smart cities." These are metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected. Today, some people have "smart" thermostats, refrigerators, or smoke detectors. Tomorrow, we'll have smart hospitals, farms, and highways, and it's likely they'll all talk to one another. Connected devices will monitor everything from air quality to energy usage and traffic congestion.
Smart city seeds are already being planted around the world. A council in London has an intelligent personal assistant designed to help residents locate information, and the world's first driverless bus service has already come to the French city of Lyon. A hotel in Japan has deployed human-like robots called "actroids," according to a report by the International Bar Association. They've been greeting and serving guests since last year, and have plans to introduce enough to replace up to 90 percent of its employees.
While smart, connected cities could be great for efficiency, some worry they could be putting technology before humanity. One looming concern is the rise of automation — which will lie at the heart of our smart future — and subsequent job losses for us humans. Around 47 percent of U.S. jobs are already "at risk" of being automated in the next 20 years, according to one paper. Another report found that 29 percent of admin and support services jobs, and 72 percent of transport and storage jobs in London, are at "high risk" of automation.
We can also expect more part-time work, distance working, and the blurring of our work and personal lives. Some worry that the rise of robots could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers.
But city-dwellers will see incremental changes outside of their workspace, too. Thanks to self-service checkouts and home delivery services, technology is creating less of a need for us to actually interact with those around us. Message bots, like Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon's Alexa, will soon be able to suggest restaurants, hotels, and other local landmarks. This is already happening in places like Tel Aviv, where everyone over the age of 13 can receive personalized data, such as traffic information, and can access free municipal Wi-Fi in 80 public zones. Populations will be encouraged to make good use of these ever-personalized digital services, since this gives companies our precious data, which will be integral to smart cities.
Devices will also become more human-like. The prospect of cities becoming sentient is "fast becoming the new reality," according to one paper. But in a future where robots sound and objects look increasingly sentient, we might be less inclined to seek out behaviors to abate our loneliness. Indeed, one recent study titled "Products as pals" found that exposure to or interaction with anthropomorphic products — which have characteristics of being alive — partially satisfy our social needs, which means the human-like robots of tomorrow could kill our dwindling urge to be around other humans.
Not all is lost, though. Helene Joffe, a professor of psychology at University College London, told a Guardian panel, "When we ask people to think about their city aspirations, we find social connectedness comes out top of the list. People want to be part of a community in cities."
It's true, some people are attempting to reverse the loneliness epidemic. Vancouver has launched initiatives to tackle isolation after a survey revealed a quarter of residents felt lonely at times, and the most lonely were aged 24 to 34. Isolation is also being tackled as a byproduct of the emission-lowering incentive of car-pooling.
But it's doubtful that these interventions will be enough to counteract further encroachment of technology on cities' infrastructure. Resistance needs to be on a grander scale. One solution may lie in the preservation of public spaces such as parks, community centers, cafes, and shops. "If cities are to remain viable places for people to develop the strong associational and social life fundamental to healthy human existence they must incorporate a range of public spaces and 'third' places outside of work and home, in which urban citizens can come together," writes John Bingham-Hall, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science.
As tech companies develop creative solutions to make cities more efficient, we can only hope they'll be mindful to the effects of change on city-dwellers' wellbeing; after all, loneliness, and the health ailments that come with it, isn't conducive to the productive economies we need to solve the problems of the future.