Is interactive AI answer to urban loneliness?

Fontys Information and Communication Technology
Is artificial intelligence an answer to loneliness in increasingly large and crowded cities? Lecturer-researchers Pieter Wels and Geert Jan van Ouwendorp are investigating the added value of AI communicating with visitors at the Fontys ICT Innovation Lab. They also see opportunities for public space.

In a city park, a young adult woman sits on a bench. In just an hour, she is passed by dozens of walkers and strollers. Like more than half of adult Dutch people in urban regions, she feels lonely. So does the senior neighborhood resident or the international student trying to escape from his cramped student room for a while.

AI, artificial intelligence, and algorithms are already playing a big role in the background in improving urban livability. Combating loneliness is a current task in the city. What if AI can also enter the conversation with us? Offer us a helping hand when we don't yet know we need it?

Smart and talking park benches that put visitors at ease or offer companionship are not a distant prospect, according to lecturer-researchers Pieter Wels and Geert Jan van Ouwendorp of the ICT program at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven.

Wels and Van Ouwendorp have been researching the added value of interactive AI applications to enhance a more personalized experience of buildings that enhance social interaction for about five years. The Building Attention project is gradually answering the question of whether our relationship with AI is becoming more personal. Ambient Intelligence, self-learning AI, might just remember our preferences for our living environment.

AI makes you feel seen
'What if a building recognized who was walking in?" asks Wels aloud. 'And what if a specific room remembered someone's lighting preference? Or that someone is already greeted upon entering, with a notification about where colleagues are?'

An Innovationlab installation at Dutch Design Week recently gave a glimpse of how a building can communicate with visitors via interactive AI. But not only buildings can be enhanced, if it is up to the lecturer-researchers, such AI will also be used to make lonely target groups in increasingly crowded cities feel more seen and heard.

"In parks and squares, interactive AI can certainly do something for an increasingly individualistic society," Van Wels says. He envisions smart public spaces that can recognize when someone is sitting alone for an extended period of time. Or how AI can send a message to someone in need, if she has indicated in advance that she is open to it.

'It's a logical next step. In increasingly larger cities, even if you walk down a busy shopping street, you can still feel alone and lonely. Think, for example, of international students,' Wels says.

"We at the Innovation Lab are asking how interactive AI fits into the new balance between technological and non-technological solutions in the city," Van Ouwendorp adds. He acknowledges that the conversation about the smart city has shifted from technology as a must-have to technology with demonstrable societal benefits. 'Everyone is looking for the right balance. Artificial intelligence quickly feels like an invasion of privacy,' Van Ouwendorp said. 'So it remains to be seen whether buildings in parks will 'recognize' people. After all, that requires a lot of (personal) data. And that, especially in legislation, is sensitive.'

'Talking to AI is already normal'
Klaes Sikkema, partner of WeLabs, also sees interactive AI as an answer to urban loneliness. 'You see that as a society we are moving in that direction. We are already talking to our cars and home assistants. Then talking to AI in public spaces is not much different.'

The deployment of AI need not violate privacy rules, Sikkema said. 'AI can interact with one visitor without the AI knowing who it is dealing with. Male or female, age or skin color. An algorithm may not use facial recognition, but it can determine if someone is looking in a certain direction or how long that person has been standing somewhere. If artificial intelligence sees one person sitting on a bench for a long time, could it ask if that person is in need of a conversation?

As far as Sikkema is concerned, municipalities are not yet aware of AI's opportunities in this area. 'I have not yet come across a municipality that is actively considering making assets interactive in order to tackle social bottlenecks such as loneliness.' Wels and Van Ouwendorp also have no sight yet of municipalities applying AI against loneliness in public spaces.

Sikkema: 'I rather expect commercial parties to start working on this. But that interactive bench in the park, it's coming.'

Source: Stadszaken

Tags: In the Media