This female CEO is trying to defeat loneliness — and robots are part of her plan

Karen Dolva

  • Loneliness affects 20-40% of the entire population at some point.
  • Everyone from a four-year-old child to an 80-year-old in a care home can feel lonely.
  • Loneliness also has a negative impact on your health, causing stress, and even heart problems.
  • The burden of loneliness on the entire population is huge.
  • Karen Dolva, the CEO of No Isolation, is trying to combat this.
  • The company is tackling the loneliness of different demographics in innovative ways.

Imagine you’re eight years old. You go to school every day, see your friends, and have lessons where you learn all the basics to set you on whatever path you eventually choose.

But imagine at eight years old you’re also diagnosed with a debilitating condition, and you have to take months off school, without seeing your friends, missing out on all the different parts of school life.

Children are just one of the groups of people Karen Dolva is trying to help with her company No Isolation. People of all ages experience loneliness, from four year olds to the elderly in care homes, and there isn’t a single way to help everyone at once.

“To us early adults in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, everything out there is basically made for us,” Dolva told Business Insider.

“We started digging and we quite quickly found that’s not the case for everyone else. We have these huge groups that are falling behind and dropping off, and these kids were only a fraction of that. Hence the company name ‘No Isolation’ — we want to help everyone who is socially isolated or lonely, and bridge the gap.”

At No Isolation, Dolva and cofounders Marius Aabel and Matias Doyle are using technology to try and help people of all ages. Tech isn’t the problem, Dolva said. It’s definitely not to blame for why we are becoming more socially isolated than ever, as tech is only a tool.

“You wouldn’t blame your washing machine for making you socially isolated, and that’s a technology,” she said. “We want to prove that tech is just what you make it out to be.”

AV1 reading with friend

Children can live through a robot avatar

In order to help children, No Isolation built a robot called the AV1. By interviewing the children themselves, teachers, and hospital staff, they wanted to find out what happens when a child gets a serious diagnosis that will put them in hospital for a long time. Dolva spent three months mapping out this space.

As many children are bedbound when they’re sick, they can’t go over to friends’ houses like they used to. The AV1 attempts to change all that.

It’s effectively a small, portable avatar with two-way audio and a one-way camera, that takes them places they couldn’t otherwise go.

While traditional TelePresence robots often have a camera to show the person on the other end, children lying down in their beds in pyjamas much preferred being able to see what was going on in the classroom without worrying about being shown to everyone.

The idea is that by carrying around the robot, other children can take them out for breaktime, hang out with them in classes, and even take them home or on field trips. “It’s supposed to be an extension of yourself,” Dolva said.

AV1 classroom

She added that the robots become “very personal” to a child.

“I think the concept of avatars is just so familiar to kids,” she said. “The kids dress it up in stickers and everything.”

You can see how the AV1 works below:

Older people can more easily connect with their families

Older people struggle with technology for different reasons. They may be unable to use a tablet or a phone — perhaps because it’s too different to what they’re used to, but it also may be because they cannot see the screen properly, or it isn’t responsive to their fingers due to poor circulation.

No Isolation built a computer called KOMP that has just one button. Even people with dementia should be able to recognise a big button easily, Dolva said, so older people can push it on and off and be connected to the rest of the family in an instant.

“All of a sudden we’ve made them online,” she said. “We try and bring them into the same platform as everyone else, without changing the habits of the younger generations.”

The burden of loneliness is incredibly high. Studies have shown how the stress of being lonely has a bad impact on your heart, and it can affect your brain and body in many harmful ways.

Finding the ‘price tag’ of loneliness

This isn’t just bad for the people who are lonely, but for society too. That’s why Dolva says she wants to find the “pricetag of loneliness” to really push them forwards.

That means calculating the cost of what happens if a child gets diagnosed with cancer at eight, then isn’t able to go to school for two or three years.

“What’s the likelihood of dropping out of school, and what’s the likelihood of getting a job if you drop out of school?” Dolva said. “Same with the seniors. If we manage to increase [their] quality of life, and enable them to stay at home for a week, two weeks, maybe a couple of months longer, what does that mean for the government in numbers?

“I want those numbers because that’s the only way we can keep really pushing the market in front of us.”

The causes of loneliness are hard to measure, because there are so many different factors for different age groups. Older people are isolated from their family and have lost many of their friends. Younger people, like millennials, may be more affected by looking on social media.

Whatever it is, Dolva said the research shows a connection between loneliness and our expectations compared to reality.

“For example, you would feel more lonely if you were alone on a Saturday than on a Tuesday night,” she said. “Because your expectation level is much higher on a Saturday. And this might be something that social media has increased… We continuously see other people doing a lot of things, so we feel like everyone is doing something all the time, and we should too.”

AV1 football

But blaming technology for our problems isn’t the answer, she said. Instead, it’s about looking at where it falls short and demanding for it to be better.

“You could start to question whether or not social media is social at all,” Dolva said. “If you drill down and see what social media was meant to do, and what is at the core business there, it has nothing to do with long conversations or close relations… social networks have not been made to increase the value of the friends that you have.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you have two, 20, or 100 friends. Your social satisfaction depends on how close you are to the ones you have, and to what extent you meet your expectation levels. If you’re happy with the amount of time you spend with your two close friends, then you won’t feel lonely.

“It’s the second you start thinking I want more, I wish I could do this tonight, but I don’t have anyone to talk to about that — that’s when we start experiencing that we’re lonely,” Dolva said.

A lot more people need help

Four months after starting up, No Isolation rolled out 20 prototypes of the AV1 robot, and immediately the team were receiving emails from moms and dads. The same happened with the KOMP screen for older people. People were getting in touch saying how wonderful it was that they could now be connected to their grandparents in such an easy way.

“We’ve been saying amongst ourselves as long as we help one more kid we will succeed,” said Dolva. “If we can do that by bringing one more unit out then that’s a success.”

Somewhere between 20 and 40% of the population experience loneliness, so there’s more than enough people to take them.

“I think we have our hands full if we want to help them all,” Dolva said. “But that would be the end goal… That people aren’t suffering from loneliness anymore.”

SEE ALSO: Lonely millennials are at a greater risk of developing anxiety and depression — but the reasons for their isolation are unclear

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