There is no escape from the virtual world.

Whether it is through social media, or gaming avatars and digital lovers, many turn to these for connections through long periods of isolation.

Our other digital friends, like Siri and Alexa, answered our questions during the pandemic and kept us up-to date on the weather and the latest news.

All of us have felt their presence in one or the other – only to be hastened throughout the pandemic.

Author and evolutionary biologist, Rob Brooks, (Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers and Algorithmic Matchmakers, Columbia University Press,) said, technology such as robotics, virtual reality and most important of all AI, are creeping into our social and emotional lives.

The speed at which they are doing so has accelerated during lockdown along with the isolation of the current pandemic.

Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last month, he said in a time of cognitive overload, these devices helped us make friendships, stay close during isolation and even feel better despite the rising rate of mood disorders.

”Social media helped us find old friends through our shared networks. They also suggest to us new people we might like, on the basis of other accounts we have liked and interacted with.”

Brooks believes the growth of virtual friends will be the most influential in people’s lives.

This has already been witness by the growth of therapist apps and other professional apps which have grown throughout the pandemic.

“These apps have been reasonably good at walking people through cognitive behaviour therapy, some computer game characters are friends, and then there are apps to take confessions if you’re a Roman Catholic – these are very useful to have in times of isolation, if you can’t get to church or a doctor.”

However, he added, beware as there is also potential for virtual friends to exploit human trust, like very manipulative salespeople and advertisers.

“These are digital friends who make contact with us in just the same way as romance-fraud scammers do today, but they know a lot about a mark, from their social media posting and perhaps from data purchased or stolen in a breach," said Brooks.

Machine learning discovers new and effective ways to groom their mark, and even generate new photographs and video via deepfake technology.

“All of these applications put together, could make an exceptional scam bot. We know this could work because the CyberLover malware achieved something close without even deploying AI, back in 2007,” said Brooks.

Pandemics hasten the adoption of technology

It took a pandemic to force people to embrace technologies such as Zoom, said Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, member of the ACS Artificial Intelligence Ethics Committee, and author of 2062: The World that AI Made.

“These technologies existed before the pandemic; things could have been much worse if we hadn’t embraced these tools for work or stayed in touch with each other virtually.

“Employees worked remotely and held onto their jobs and now many don’t like the idea of going back into the office five days a week.”

There is a danger of interacting with machines more than with each other, Prof Walsh said.

“We already are seduced by our smart phones, and when we feel people connecting to us through emails and mobile pings and ‘likes’; there is a feeling of being wanted or loved when connections come through.”

While it was very healthy to maintain connection during lockdown, it’s equally important to be cautious because it is an artificial intimacy that is received through these devices.

“People are easily fooled because they believe these technologies are getting more capable and more empathic and they’re not – AI is built on deception.” he said.

“We can pretend that the computer is intelligent, and when it does something smart, we can think it has full range of social and emotional intelligence. It doesn’t.”

Ultimately, the future of AI will rest on mankind to make the wise choices.

“Will AI enhance or hinder our lives?

“We are social animals, and while we weren’t the fastest or strongest animal on this planet, we’re able to co-ordinate ourselves into groups and grow and build communities; more than one individual could do.”

As machines become smarter and more capable, Prof Walsh said they will never compete with human emotions.

“All the things that are uniquely human such as, maintaining and building relationship, losing a loved one and falling in love.

“Machines will never be able to replicate human emotions, because they’re machines!”