Lonely French people could befriend virtual assistants

A significant proportion of young people feel lonely, and could use AI to make friends

Virtual assistants could one day help the 25% of French people under 35 who feel lonely, and use Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to become their friend, a new study has suggested.

The findings were presented this week at the fourth annual edition of the Paris Retail Week exhibition, at Porte de Versailles in Paris.

According to a report by communications group Havas Paris, 25% of French people under 35 feel lonely, and would consider using technology that would allow them to converse with - and even “befriend” - virtual assistants.

The AI would be someone to talk to at all times, offer constant company, learn the speaker’s habits and likes and dislikes, and would not judge them, the suggestions said.

Using technology to appease loneliness or offer support in the lives of young people is not a new idea.

In 2017, a study by life research centre Crédoc found that two million French people aged 15-30 suffered from loneliness. Virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Cortana already exist - although they are currently more likely to remind you of the time or compile a shopping list, than to befriend their users.

And the 2013 film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Spike Jonze, showed a world in which virtual assistants could be a human’s constant companion, with mixed results.

But, current AI is not at this level yet, with most chatbots or virtual assistants unable to have complicated conversations, understand nuances or jokes, or offer much common sense, researchers say.

Nicolas Miailhe, co-founder and president of The Future Society, said: “We tend to overestimate the quality of the user experience with conversation assistants as they exist today, even the best ones. Even if we have made huge steps forward with natural language [on assistants], we are far from the richness of a deep conversation.

“When a conversation assistant gives you the impression of understanding you, it is based on statistics. It is not intelligence. The AI does not even know that it has answered you.”

Jean-Claude Heudin, researcher in AI technology, explained: “Current AIs are machines; they are also not allowed to make mistakes. So if your assistant doesn’t understand you the first time you say something, it won’t work. We would be more tolerant with a real person, who might ask you to repeat what you said.”

Mr Miailhe said: “If we imagine becoming friends with a conversational assistant who - because it is a machine - has no conscience or common sense, we are significantly changing the meaning of friendship.”

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