The Luxury of True Human Contact

On March 23, 2019, Nellie Bowles, a technology writer for the New York Times, published an interesting article in the newspaper entitled „Human contact is now a luxury good.“ (published in the NYT International Edition on March 26). She describes the California-based company Care.Coach, which, according to its website, provides „an innovative and exciting solution that coaches individuals to improve self-management of chronic conditions, and provides compassionate, ​24×7 psychosocial support.“ What does the company offer?Robots in Psychiatry

The company states on its website: „With, patients can talk with a captivating avatar that serves as the face for’s team of specially trained health advocates. The platform engages and coaches patients to improve self-management of chronic conditions, and provides compassionate, 24×7 psychosocial support. Conversations of a clinical nature are automated through software algorithms that implement clinical best practices, as well as reporting and alerts to stakeholders such as clinicians, caregivers, and family members.“

That means, if you feel lonely and suffer from a lack of social contact, you register with Care.Coach, and afterwards you will talk with an animated cat or dog, which tells you that it loves you! Your tablet will serve as the substitute for true relationships.

In my blog post of November 1, 2017, entitled “Would you talk to a machine therapist?” I described how psychiatry is now on its way to computerized psychotherapy. Computers and robots are now widely believed to be the solution for the rising lack of nurses especially in care of the elderly. Are computers the answer psychiatry has for fundamental changes in the structure of our societies?

Nellie Bowles’ answer: “Life for anyone but the very rich – the physical experience of living, learning and dying – is increasingly mediated by screens. Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass. The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction – living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email – has become a status symbol.”

She comes to the conclusion: “All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.”

It’s so true. While the scientific evidence now clearly demonstrates that social contact is most likely the most important factor for physical and mental health (this has been even shown to be true for fruit flies!), we are creating a world in which robots will have the role to fulfill one of the most basic human needs: the desire for contact, proximity and unity. And we celebrate this as a breakthrough of civilization.