Artificial intelligence (AI) is not new. In fact, it has been present for decades. Only now, it affects nearly every aspect of daily life. Some of these changes are exciting. For example: Technologies like speech recognition and text-to-speech systems make it easier for people with different communication needs to interact with others. I think we can all agree that anything that promotes inclusivity and reduces feelings of isolation is a good thing.
That’s why it’s concerning to know that despite AI’s potential to build bridges, people feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever. AI-powered chatbots and virtual companions are supposed to bring people closer together—and in some ways, they do. But something’s clearly missing, and the numbers that indicate there’s a problem are staggering.
An Epidemic of Loneliness
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one out of every five American adults suffers from chronic loneliness. Among senior citizens it’s even more worrisome, with one out of four people over the age of 65 saying they feel socially isolated.
If you think that’s bad, young adults are even more vulnerable. A Cigna study found that 61 percent of 18 to 22 year olds report feeling lonely. This makes them the loneliest generation ever surveyed. Take a moment to let that sink in.
It’s no wonder that leaders in business and government are making loneliness a top priority. Study after study shows that a lack of social connection doesn’t just stunt personal and professional growth—it can also lead to an early death. Social isolation may even pose greater health risks than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure.
So, what’s happening here? What’s the missing link? It’s impossible to point to any one cause, but when I think about some of my own online habits, like scrolling through social media feeds and reading computer-generated content, it feels artificial and hollow.
That’s because as sophisticated as AI is, it can’t copy the little things that build genuine human relationships. Things like facial expressions and body language. It can’t tune into someone’s tone of voice or have a spontaneous, off-topic conversation—the kind of conversation where you discover that you have some weird and wonderful thing in common with someone else.
Real People, Genuine Connections
It’s not that AI can’t connect us. Because it can, at least in a basic sense. It’s just not very good at building rapport, which is made up of intangible things like empathy, trust, and respect. We must also remember that behind the screens, there are real people who want and need real connections. AI can turn up the dial on how many people we interact with, but it can’t replace the essence of who we are as social beings. Being connected to other people is in our DNA. It’s what makes us human, and it’s why we need to preserve the connections that make us whole.
Bottom line: AI may power our devices, but it’s EI (emotional intelligence) that powers the relationships that make us successful. And unlike AI, EI is entirely human. It enables us to understand others, react appropriately, and form healthy, productive relationships, which is something that no machine or algorithm can replicate.
Learn more with our interactive course, Build Better Relationships: How to Thrive in an AI-Driven World, hosted on Udemy Business.
Patrick Galvin is the cofounder of The Galvanizing Group, a learning and development company focused on relationship building. An accomplished speaker and TEDx presenter, he is also the author of a series of books on how to build strong, trust-based connections in the real world and online.