A headshot of Ron Ivey.


May 14, 2024

Synthetic intimacy: Is AI solving the loneliness epidemic or making it worse?

We should be asking serious questions about using a venture-backed startup model to solve loneliness

Ron Ivey

5 min read

Investors and founders are desperately seeking ways to transform the millions of dollars invested in developing today's powerful AI models into useful and profitable products.

And while that prize might be proving elusive for many business applications, there is one lucrative application for generative AI that is spreading like wildfire and should potentially have us worried as citizens.

AI girlfriend creator Martin Galovic, founder of FantasyGF and former search engineer for OnlyFans, believes that the market for synthetic intimate partners will be “bigger than OnlyFans”.  Yet, he admits the social future he and other AI companion companies are creating for younger lonely generations is “definitely very dystopian”. 


Galovic is serving a set of consumers that Marc Andreesen, founder of VC firm a16z, has termed "the loneliness market", but we should be asking serious questions about whether the venture-backed startup model is the right solution for this problem. 

Big business

According to a16z, AI companions have: “emerged as a predominant use case for generative AI…The most successful products in this category become a core part of the user’s daily life, becoming as commonplace as texting a friend.”

They cite Character.Ai, boasting over 20m users and already valued at $1bn. Users interact with the AI companion on average 298 times per month and spend about 2 hours daily talking to it, according to the company.

A graph showcasing the top GenAI consumer mobile apps by engagement.
Source: a16z

And a16z isn’t the only big hitter that’s getting in on the act.

On September 27, 2023, Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital, took to Twitter to announce his investment in Meeno, “a non-judgemental AI mentor” described by Fast Company as “part friend and coach”. Former Tinder CEO Renate Nyborg founded Meeno and aims to use technology to “tackle the loneliness epidemic”. 

I immediately responded to Botha and Nyborg on Twitter: “As a loneliness researcher, I find this deeply troubling that you all see this as the solution.” 

To my surprise, Nyborg invited me to meet in person in Paris, where I live. 

Technology to help us flourish

Our conversation circled a question that’s been asked by thinkers for millennia: what is the role of technology in human flourishing?

I shared cognitive health research from my colleague Ian Marcus Corbin, which suggests that extreme social isolation scrambles our ability to understand reality, “melting our world”. I argued that deploying AI mentors to lonely, isolated individuals could lead to further declines in mental health and broader social trust issues for democracies. 

Nyborg has since pivoted Meeno's role from a personal mentor to a reflective tool. Yet, I remain concerned about the systemic pressures that might compromise her noble goals. 

Sam Pressler, a community builder and research affiliate at the Harvard Human Flourishing Program, has critiqued the misalignment of typical VC strategies with the genuine needs of community building. He notes the gulf in incentives between focusing on the customer discovery process, reducing friction, and promoting rapid growth, in contrast to the slow, engaged process required to nurture real community bonds.

VC firms’ “definition of success” is to achieve a 10x return on 5-10% of their investments by pushing startups towards rapid growth or failure, which increases their valuation for further investment rounds. This relentless pursuit of rapid growth can place founders with altruistic aims in precarious positions where human well-being no longer becomes the top priority. 


Redefining Success

But, in reality, the underlying problem isn’t rooted in the current VC model. The problem is above them. 

The most profitable VCs are winning a game designed by policymakers and measured by economists. In this game, the score is economic growth. 

Just like in the natural world, growth is vital. But the wrong kind of growth in the wrong places can be bad too. Cancer is a prime example: unhealthy cells growing at the expense of the body’s health.  

If we want technology to serve the human race and not merely the investors and founders behind rapidly growing products, we need a new way to diagnose healthy growth. We need new metrics. These should measure our society's health more comprehensively than the mere rise or fall of our gross domestic product".

The Harvard Human Flourishing Program’s research has identified ubiquitous elements of human flourishing — financial stability, mental and physical health, happiness and life satisfaction, virtuous character, close social relationships, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

We are currently working with two Oxford professors, economist Dennis Snower and finance professor Colin Mayer, to measure flourishing globally and use this data to evaluate the quality of national growth and the performance of businesses. The G20 is considering the use of these metrics to evaluate policy. 

I’m hopeful that transformation at this scale could change the game for VCs and technologists. 

Commercialising technologies that advance these flourishing outcomes will require a different kind of leadership and culture within corporations. This could include the use of existing standards like IEEE 7000 — a means of assessing technology development from an ethical standpoint —  and practical tools to help product designers incorporate human flourishing into the design and testing process. 

Fundamentally, we need to ask: "Do we really value our in-person relationships enough to prioritise them as a society?" I hope the answer is affirmative and collective action is imminent. 

I am glad Nyborg put a value on in-person human connection enough to meet me. Our time together in a real cafe breaking bread together sparked a new dialogue between researchers and technologies — proof that in-person connections are where the real magic happens.