Loneliness, insomnia linked to work with AI systems

June 18, 2023

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Loneliness, insomnia linked to work with AI systems

Employees who frequently interact with artificial intelligence systems are more likely to experience loneliness that can lead to insomnia and increased after-work drinking, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association (of which Alicia and I are members).

The researchers conducted four experiments in the U.S., Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia. Findings were consistent across cultures. The research was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

What the researchers say: “The rapid advancement in AI systems is sparking a new industrial revolution that is reshaping the workplace with many benefits but also some uncharted dangers, including potentially damaging mental and physical impacts for employees,” said the study’s lead author. “Humans are social animals, and isolating work with AI systems may have damaging spillover effects into employees’ personal lives.”

At the same time, working with AI systems may have some benefits. The researchers found that employees who frequently used AI systems were more likely to offer help to fellow employees, but that response may have been triggered by their loneliness and need for social contact.

Furthermore, the studies found that participants with higher levels of attachment anxiety – the tendency to feel insecure and worried about social connections – responded more strongly to working on AI systems with both positive reactions, such as helping others, and negative ones, such as loneliness and insomnia.

In one experiment, 166 engineers at a Taiwanese biomedical company who worked with AI systems were surveyed over three weeks about their feelings of loneliness, attachment anxiety and sense of belonging. Coworkers rated individual participants on their helpful behaviors, and family members reported on participants’ insomnia and after-work alcohol consumption. Employees who interacted more frequently with AI systems were more likely to experience loneliness, insomnia and increased after-work alcohol consumption, but also showed some helping behaviors toward fellow employees.

In another experiment with 126 real estate consultants in an Indonesian property management company, half were instructed not to use AI systems for three consecutive days while the other half were told to work with AI systems as much as possible. The findings for the latter group were similar to the previous experiment, except there was no association between the frequency of AI use and after-work alcohol consumption. This latter may be explained by Islam—which has an alcohol prohibition—being the dominant religion.

There were similar findings from an online experiment with 214 full-time working adults in the U.S. and another with 294 employees at a Malaysian tech company.

The researchers said that moving forward, developers of AI technology should consider equipping AI systems with social features, such as a human voice, to emulate human-like interactions. Employers also could limit the frequency of work with AI systems and offer opportunities for employees to socialize. Team decision-making and other tasks where social connections are important could be done by people, while AI systems could focus more on tedious and repetitive tasks, they added.

“Mindfulness programs and other positive interventions also might help relieve loneliness,” the lead author suggested. “AI will keep expanding so we need to act now to lessen the potentially damaging effects for people who work with these systems.”

So, what? Other studies have shown that those who work most with AI systems are more likely to suffer from burnout and depression. We’re designed to work with humans, not AI, and the further we get from our design specs, the more stressed we become.

Interestingly, according to an article in the Washington Post, the European Parliament is moving ahead with attempts to regulate AI while similar efforts in the US have reached a stalemate (like everything else). Australia is also considering some form of regulation. Additionally, according to CNN 42% of CEOs believe that AI could destroy humanity in 5-10 years.

However, I’m sure the vast majority of CEOs will try and profit from AI, no matter what the dangers.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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