How many of us had a childhood companion in the form of a plush toy, or even an invisible imaginary friend? These inanimate or make-believe objects/friends provide company when we are lonely, a listening ear when we need to talk, and a shoulder to cry on when we’re sad.
In the epic American survival drama movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a systems engineer who is stranded on a deserted island in the South Pacific. He ‘makes friends’ with a volleyball he names Wilson to get through the four years of solitude with his sanity relatively intact. Just like Chuck, we all need companionship. But as we grow up, it becomes more difficult to form bonds, leaving many adults alone and lonely – and apparently, this can be dangerous. According to a study conducted by researchers in the U.S., loneliness is deadlier than obesity and should be considered a major public health hazard. And this is not limited to America.
With the singles economy surging in China, there is a growing trend of solitary diners seen in restaurants with life-sized plush toys. This fad is driven by the massive growth of China’s adult population living alone – a population which is projected to grow from 77 million to an estimated 92 million by 2021, as estimated by the Boston Consulting Group. If having dinner with a plush toy is a small relief to a lonely person, imagine what a more life-like companion can do to ease the pain of isolation.
Passionate about introducing new concepts of life, Dr .Susan Lim wears many hats. She is a well-known robotic surgeon, prosthetics specialist, researcher and a renowned speaker. Dr. Lim also believes that we can do things better. Diving into robotics and stem cell research, she believes that synthetic life is not far-fetched and that AI companionship may be the solution to the growing concern of loneliness. According to Dr. Lim, we are not only on the cusp of a robotic revolution, but that AI combined with synthetic life is the next step in global evolution. And what better way to create AI companionship than for it to resemble real life as close as possible? Like the realistic androids that are more frequently seen at tech conventions, or Sophia, the robot who was given citizenship in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If you were lonely, would you not want Sophia as a friend?