The business of loneliness is booming in the pandemic / Humans + Tech - #53

+ Walmart replaces robots with humans + What brain-computer interfaces could mean for the future of work + Voters in the US choose to force more accountable uses of technology


While the presidential race in the US elections garnered most of the attention, several laws were passed in different states that affect how technology impacts humans.

Julia Angwin, Editor-in-Chief for The Markup, writes [Hello World]:

In almost every race we were following, voters chose to force more accountable uses of technology. Changes that we saw included:

But there was one notable exception to the trend: the passage of Prop 22 in California, which gives companies like Uber and Lyft the right to treat their drivers as “independent contractors” rather than complying with AB5, a state law passed in 2019 that categorized them as employees

Yay for all except Prop 22.

The business of loneliness is booming in the pandemic

Loneliness was a growing problem even before the pandemic. The isolation from our current pandemic has only exacerbated it [Mathias Rosenzweig, The Guardian].

Covid-19 is a scary illness, but loneliness kills too. A Health Resources and Services Administration study found that severe loneliness can damage your health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Researchers in the US have gone so far as to say that seniors enduring long bouts of loneliness have a 45% higher risk of mortality than the rest.

Tech companies are stepping in with solutions for loneliness.

Intuit Robotics, an Israeli company, is testing ElliQ, a robot they say is “the sidekick of happier ageing.”

Paro, an interactive robot designed as a fluffy white seal, has sensors with which it perceives people and the environment and even makes baby seal sounds (I linked to another article about Paro in issue #48.

Japan’s holographic pop star, Hatsune Miku (mentioned in issue #38), although not a real human is in demand by Japanese men. For about $2,800 plus a monthly fee, shoppers can purchase a “black orb” containing Miku, as an at-home girlfriend.

In China, the Boyfriends-for-Rent business is exploding – these are actual humans that single women in their 20s hire to convince their families that they are not alone.

And camming, where freelancers have interactions and friendly interactions with people over webcams is hugely popular.

Jeremy Noble, a faculty member of Harvard Medical School, warns that these solutions are not cures and we should be wary of these products replacing our need for real human connection.

“The scenario we’d like to avoid is having kids say, ‘Well, too bad Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa is lonely. I could go visit them, but instead I’m going to send them one of these animatronic seals.”


“Human beings have hundreds of thousands of years of biologic wiring,” Nobel said. “We may need more things from people than what an animatronic robot can give.”

Walmart replaces robots with humans

In a nice reversal for humans, Walmart has decided to stop using robots to keep track of inventory [James Vincent, The Verge].

The Bossa Nova robots that Walmart used, scanned shelves to ensure items were in stock and prices were accurate. Walmart has been using them since 2017 in about 500 stores. Walmart realized that humans could do the job just as well.

The article cites a Wall Street Journal report:

The WSJ reports that as more people began shopping online, Walmart found it had “more workers walking the aisles frequently to collect online orders.” It seems that these workers could then perform the same inventory checks as the robots. Additionally, the WSJ says that Walmart’s US chief executive John Furner had worries about what customers would think seeing robots in the company’s stores.

What brain-computer interfaces could mean for the future of work

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are bridges between your brain and an external device that monitor brain signals and patterns to make sense out of them. Recent advances in BCI technology mean that BCIs can be wearables instead of requiring invasive surgery. Originally intended to help paralyzed people control devices with their thoughts, the use cases are expanding, and they may soon be used to monitor employees at work [Alexandre Gonfalonieri, Harvard Business Review].

Like every technology, BCIs will have both good and bad uses.

The good:

For example, BCIs can now be used as a neurofeedback training tool to improve cognitive performance. I expect to see a growing number of professionals leveraging BCI tools to improve their performance at work. For example, your BCI could detect that your attention level is too low compared with the importance of a given meeting or task and trigger an alert. It could also adapt the lighting of your office based on how stressed you are, or prevent you from using your company car if drowsiness is detected.

The bad:

This ability to monitor (and potentially control) attention levels creates new possibilities for managers. For example, companies could have access to a specific “BCI HR dashboard” in which all employees’ brain data would be displayed, in real-time. Are we going to see supervisors monitoring the attention levels of their colleagues? At the end of each annual performance review, are we going to also analyze and compare attention levels thanks to our BCIs? Your brain information may be of interest to your employers, allowing them to keep an eye on how focused you are, and allowing them to adapt employees’ workloads accordingly. Again, there is much potential for abuse.

There are also several ethical concerns when it comes to employers monitoring their employees’ brain signals.

As you can imagine, there are myriad ethical questions and concerns surrounding the use of BCI technology in the workplace. Companies who opt to use BCI technology can face massive backlash from employees, not to mention from the public. When it comes to collecting brain data, the potential for abuse is frightening: Even when used with the best of intentions, companies could risk becoming overly dependent on using brain data to evaluate, monitor, and train employees, and there are risks associated with that.

The technology is much further ahead than the regulations and laws around its use. It’s time for governments to take this seriously and design laws to protect workers from inappropriate uses of this technology.

Quote of the week

“The scenario we’d like to avoid is having kids say, ‘Well, too bad Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa is lonely. I could go visit them, but instead I’m going to send them one of these animatronic seals.”

—Jeremy Noble, Faculty member, Harvard Medical School, in the article, “Boyfriends for rent, robots, camming: how the business of loneliness is booming” [Mathias Rosenzweig, The Guardian]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)