Catasauqua Press

Friday, February 21, 2020

Another View

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 by The Press in Opinion

Can a ‘new species of life’ help with a very human problem?

Early this year, a buzz was emanating from Las Vegas having little to do with high-voltage light displays, dancers dressed in crystal-bedazzled costumes or shiny quarters spilling from slot machines.

NEON debuted at CES 2020, the annual global consumer electronics show held in January. NEON, funded by a lab in the Samsung technology behemoth, is described as an “artificial human” on its webpage, neon.life, and by tech industry watcher C/NET as “a new species of life from humans,” according to the vision of NEON CEO Pranav Mistry.

Unlike Siri or Alexa, each NEON will have its own name. Users will be able to call upon a NEON to provide financial advice, to help perfect a yoga pose or to learn a new language.

A NEON will not run a vacuum, mow a lawn or play with a pet, but it may help you perfect your culinary skills.

“NEON is a computationally created virtual being that looks and behaves like a real human, with the ability to show emotions and intelligence,” according to its website.

The promotional information continues: “Not an AI assistant. Not an interface to the Internet. Not a music player. Simply, a friend.”

A friend? Maybe a friend is something (too) many of us need.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, there is a loneliness epidemic. Households are shrinking, resulting in more people living alone. The government agency’s statistics show older people are especially vulnerable.

The HRSA cites the following on its website, “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over a quarter of the U.S. population — and 28 percent of older adults — now live by themselves.”

I can recall a journalism professor of mine tearing up while describing her experience of seeing a senior citizen wish good night to an evening news anchor before turning off their television. The senior lived alone.

And who among us has not found ourselves growing increasingly impatient while behind someone whom we perceive to be an excessively chatty person in a line at a supermarket, dry cleaner, bank or fast food restaurant when we just want to get done with whatever errand it is? That talkative person may simply be lonely.

Here is a particularly sobering statistic from the HRSA:

“Poor social relationships were associated with a 29-percent increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32-percent rise in the risk of stroke, studies have shown.”

Alarmed by the growing epidemic in the United Kingdom, then-Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness in 2018. On Jan. 20, the British government released its policy paper titled the “Loneliness Annual Report.”

Officials provide the following statement in the introduction to the report: “Often feeling lonely has been linked to early deaths and an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.”

In news coverage during and after CES 2020, reporters and others noted NEON technology is not consumer-ready. In its coverage, msn.com described reporter Andrew Gebhart’s experience interacting with NEON as leaving him “impressed more with the possibilities than the reality” of the technology.

Others were less charitable describing NEON as little more than digital avatars. Reporter James Vincent found NEON to be “more hype than hyper-futuristic” in his article for the online technology news magazine The Verge. Referencing “Star Wars,” Vincent wrote “these aren’t the artificial humans you’re looking for.”

Although Mistry envisions a NEON “100 percent visually real, like you and me. Existing among us from all walks of life,” we may be in for a bit of a wait.

In the meantime, perhaps we members of the human species can make a friend and help combat the loneliness epidemic until NEONs and their fellow AI beings are ready to take the reins. Try leaving a note on a neighbor’s door just to say hello or giving a smile and nod to someone in line at the post office.

Your smile may create a buzz all its own.

April Peterson

editorial assistant

East Penn Press

Salisbury Press