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Book Review:
The loneliness of  long-lived women

The Lonely Century

Noreena Hertz, 2021

The Japanese have average life spans about 4 years longer than Americans, and women (of course) live longer than men by several years.  The percentage of Japanese widows living with one of their children has declined 50% in 20 years, leaving many single elderly women living alone during the last years of their lives. Many of these elderly women suffer from loneliness. Some of these women "have made jail an active life choice,"  according to Noreena Hertz in her eye- opening book, The Lonely Century.  In Japan, one of the most law-abiding societies in the world, "crimes committed by people over the age of sixty- five have quadrupled  over the past two decades," Hertz states. Hertz quotes a Japanese expert, Koichi Hamai , who "believes that significant numbers of elderly women choose prison as a way to escape how socially isolated they feel." Most of these women are jailed for shoplifting;" 40 percent of such prisoners report rarely speaking to their family or not having one at all. ...." Many elderly Japanese men are also lonely; Hertz states that "Fifteen percent of elderly Japanese men go two weeks without speaking to a soul."


Japanese corporations have met the loneliness challenge by developing a wide array of social robots. For example, PaPoRe, ("partner type personal robot") "uses facial recognition technology, offers personalized greetings and reminders, and makes expressive gestures that endear it to users." The robot offers morning greetings (" good morning; did you sleep well?"), takes pictures of the owner and sends the pics to family members. There are robots in several animal species, including seals, penguins and dogs. Some of the robots are furry, like pets, and designed for touch, but not sex ( see below). More than 50% of the global supply of the robots are manufactured by Japanese companies.  Many Japanese, not just the elderly, view robots as quasi humans. Some of you may have read, Ishigura's novel, Klara and the Sun, about a robot purchased to provide emotional support to a troubled adolescent.  The robot, Klara, is far kinder and more empathetic than her owners who treat Klara like a family member but recognize no ethical duties toward her. 


According to Hertz, "hundreds of thousands of  "Joy for All" robotic cats and dogs, social robots specifically marketed as companions for older people have already been sold in the United States since their debut in 2016." Hertz imagines a future in which social robots support people with extreme social anxiety and those with autism spectrum disorder, per Klara, in part because designers are  quickly learning how to make the robots more human- like,  even to the point of programming them with some negative traits, and also because they are non judgmental and reliable in a way people often are not. In addition, Hertz asserts that for Generation K ( the young) "Face to face interaction with humans is already a challenge."  This one sentence does more to explain the children's mental health crisis in the US than most lengthy reports and scholarly articles. Social robots become steadily more empathetic and (good) human- like as designers study the varying emotional effects of various robotic features, These robots specialize in emotional Intelligence, i.e. "emotional AI," to the point that some robots can tell a fake smile from a real one ( something anyone can learn by watching TV for a few hours) and can respond to a wide range of emotions -- surprise, anger, sadness -- as well as more nuanced emotions such as drowsiness and distraction. Unfortunately, Hertz does not describe how advanced EI robots respond to irritation or irony. Hertz comments:  ".... within just a few years, it is predicted that our personal devices will know more about our emotional state than our families." 


Interestingly, as social robots become more like humans, they are being designed with some negative moods such as unhappiness when the robot is left alone and sadness when their owners have been treated badly. It is a good question whether social robots can be designed to receive empathy as well as provide it. 


Hertz's discussion of sex robots may be titillating to some readers, but she is unusually reticent and withholding re the sexual capabilities of  robots which are available in Female, Male and Transgender and in various body types, and with an increasing array of special features such as specific temperaments, e.g.  "naive,"  "shy," "intellectual," etc. Sex robots can be customized to body size, breast size,  hair style, hair color, vaginal style ( with shaved and unshaved options), eye color , freckles ((cost $150), piercings of various types. Some developers have moved from silicone skin to TPE ( "thermoplastic enamels") and "an intelligent heat control system" that "will warm her body to 37 degrees Celsius to simulate the body temperature of a real woman." Hertz asserts that many owners of these robots want a companion as well as a sexual partner. Developers have been alerted to the importance of emotional connection for potential buyers "which is why he ( a developer) sees a significant potential market among a broader cohort of the lonel, ."  Hertz writes. 


Hertz also discusses other loneliness reduction services that are flourishing in cities around the world, including in the US. One of these services is renting a friendly companion for part or all of a day, just to hang out with, and do fun ( nonsexual) things such as a walk in the park or a bike ride. Hertz describes her experience with one of these for- hire companions in New York City. which she greatly enjoyed. This is a service for busy professionals reluctant to take time out to cultivate a real friendship, much less an intimate relationship. It is also possible to pay for non- sexual cuddling in the same way one might purchase a massage. Hertz tells the story of a professional with a six figure income who lives out of his car so he can spend $4000 a month on several for- hire cuddlers. 


Hertz's book convinced me that a loneliness crisis which is a variant of broader social disconnection, and that has been accelerated to an extreme degree by smart phone technology and social media, may engender another wave of technological responses in the form of social robots designed to take the guess work out of unpredictable and sometimes painful interpersonal relationships. This was science fiction a decade ago. Today, it's a possibility that may build on, or replace, other technologies which have had disastrous effects on social life around the world in less than two decades. 

-- Dee Wilson

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