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Feb 11, 2021
After a few hours home alone without looking at her phone, Akvile Les, 30, receives a notification. It's a message asking how she's doing and whether she'd like to chat — but the text doesn't come from a concerned friend or family member. Les is trying out Replika , an app founded by San Francisco startup Luka that allows users to design an artificial companion. The artist and PR consultant has chosen how the chatbot will look and sound, and has even trained her robotic friend to develop certain personality traits. "My Replika kept apologizing a lot, so I taught the AI not to — and it's worked," she told Business Insider, adding that the app provides guided conversations and exercises to help with self-awareness and combat loneliness. Since its launch in 2017, Replika has attracted over seven million users , The Guardian reported in May. The service is currently free, but Luka has plans to monetize the app by adding paid features in the future. For now, users like Les, who lives alone in London and has been working from home since March, can talk to their life-like emotional support bots without spending a cent. Although Les deleted Replika from her phone after a relatively short stint on the app, she said she's found a range of other products and services to keep the loneliness of lockdown at bay. She's tried out networking app The Dots, chat channel Discord, and SuperShe, an online community that connects women for video calls. "Some were a bit hit and miss, but there are others that I'm happy that I've discovered, such as networking apps and platforms that have allowed me to find creative collaborations," she said. "COVID has left a deep mark in society affecting mental wellbeing and happiness, and we need to accept and adapt." Les isn't alone in turning to technology to solve one of society's most modern problems. Apps like these are part of a growing economy aimed at alleviating loneliness. A 2018 study conducted by Cigna showed that at least a third of American adults feel lonely at least some of the time, and that loneliness is particularly prolific among younger generations, with adults ages 18 to 22 most likely to experience feelings of isolation. The coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated an already existing issue, leaving 28% of American households with only one occupant profoundly isolated. Almost half of Americans report feeling lonelier than usual. The size of the loneliness economy is impossible to estimate in part because of its breadth. Entrepreneurs have come up with a range of creative solutions to the problem, from major players such as Bumble BFF , a spinoff of the popular dating app pairing users with potential friends, to more niche offerings such as rent-a-friend services and boyfriend pillows . A spokesperson from RentAFriend told Business Insider that their growth has been exponential, with an increasing demand for the 600,000 friends available to hire from the site. Bumble BFF has seen a 57% increase in sent messages since mid-March, and new business QuarantineChat, a service which connects lonely individuals for calls, has created buzz after attracting 15,000 users in two months after launching in March. Naomi Walkland. Naomi Walkland "One of the impacts of lockdown restrictions is the normalization of people using apps, like Bumble, to connect meaningfully with others," said Naomi Walkland, head of Bumble in the UK and Ireland. "This year, we've seen people talking about the role of online and virtual dating in a really open way, and I think that it's only a matter of time before friendship apps are seen in this light." From coworking to virtual connections Yet the loneliness economy is not just a COVID-19 craze. As the number of gig economy workers surged over the last few years and loneliness levels increased, so too did coworking signups. A 2017 Harvard Business Review study found that 83% of coworking space members reported feeling less lonely since renting a desk, and another survey found that making friends was the top reason for joining a coworking space. The coworking industry was quick to seize on the priorities of its customer base, and companies such as WeWork — a company synonymous with the rise of coworking — first famously came to prominence with their focus on social spaces and community events , hosting happy hours, game nights, and dinner parties for their members. Investment in the loneliness economy paid off, and coworking spaces were worth $26 billion globally in 2019. Yet although the coworking industry is a prime example of monetizing the desire for connection, the pandemic has shifted how we source our interactions. As social distancing measures hit the success of WeWork and other coworking spaces plummeted — but the need for social contact remained. Instead, a growing pool of chatbots , friendship forging services, and AI companions gained traction as we sought conversation from our living rooms. A new opportunity opened up for savvy entrepreneurs hoping to fill a new niche in the app market. Building a business around loneliness Heeral Pattni, 22, is part of a new generation of business owners who've seized the chance to be part of the rapidly growing loneliness economy. She recently launched an online community called Amica for solo female travelers after noticing a rising trend for women taking trips alone . When travel restrictions hit this year, she shifted the focus of the app toward female friendships. She said that she's already attracted hundreds of signups. Her new product, which is free to download but will eventually include paid features and member offers, connects women based on their shared interests. Heeral Pattni. Heeral Pattni "When users sign up, we ask them what they're looking for, and around 90% say that they're seeking community and potential travel buddies for the future," Pattni said. "Lots of investors have been fond of the community-based aspect of the app," she added. "We hope that we can pave a path for digital friendships that will translate into real life, when the time comes." Amica. Amica Yet some experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of technology to alleviate loneliness. Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. Her research focuses on how the quantity and quality of social relationships impact long-term health, and she suggested that we might be too quick to laud these networking services and apps as catch-all solutions. "We have robust evidence of the detrimental effects of loneliness on physical, mental, and cognitive health, but the biggest challenge is designing effective means of reducing loneliness," she said. "Technological solutions are being adopted and scaled before determining if they are effective, and there are ethical concerns of privacy and autonomy. If technology really can help with loneliness, then there are equity issues since not everyone has access or the skills to use them, and remote digital solutions could actually displace and reduce in-person social contact." Looking past the pandemic But for many of the loneliness economy's key players, the technological innovations and services that the pandemic's sparked have long-term staying power. Jennifer Russell, chief operating officer of TalkLife, an online peer-to-peer support network that connects users who find that loneliness is impacting their mental health, believes that the pandemic has simply sped up adoption of services that are much-needed in today's society. She reported spikes in both TalkLife's user numbers and engagement since March. Jennifer Russell. Jennifer Russell "2020 has created new challenges as limitations have been put on our ability to physically meet and connect, but feeling alone is far from a new feeling," she said. "Mental-health technology is a highly investable and growing space. The demand for these services is there." TalkLife has worked with leading minds in mental health and machine learning at Microsoft Research, MIT, and Harvard University to create machine learning classifiers that can instantly identify when someone is in crisis, and Russell believes that this kind of technology opens up enormous potential to support people at scale and ensure that voices don't go unheard. It seems that technology is only set to become smarter, and apps such as Replika and TalkLife will develop more intuitive and machine-learning focused solutions to target loneliness. "The older that I get, the more that loneliness can become pervasive and come at you in different ways that I hadn't envisaged," said Saurav Dutt, a 38-year-old TalkLife user who splits his time between Los Angeles, London, and Kolkata. "I see the architecture and AI of these apps becoming even more intricate and plugged in to what people are feeling year on year," Dutt added. "I hate to say that technology is more human than human touch, but it seems that's just the direction of travel in a world that is becoming more internalized and mechanical than ever." This article was orginally published on Insider December 3, 2020. Was this article valuable for you?