Love in the times of COVID – help us support physically isolated people

In the past few weeks, a humanitarian, social, and economic disaster has been unfolding because of COVID19. To stop the virus from spreading, people have been asked to engage in social distancing. Based on what we know so far this is a wise decision and we encourage everyone to engage in social distancing, too. At the same time, we know that being socially isolated can have extremely adverse consequences that can even lead to death. How can we adhere to governmental regulations but also maintain social contact? It is time to act now and build smart solutions. We want to build a “relationship simulator” that will keep learning and will mobilise WhatsApp, Facebook, and Zoom communicators to protect our health in this time of crisis. 

What is social distancing?

Social distancing means not being in the same place together or at the very least not in close proximity to each other. In Italy, at first, shop and restaurant owners were required to make sure their customers keep their distance and now all of them have been closed to make sure people stay at home. France, Norway, and Ireland have closed their entire education system to keep people from gathering in one place. The data clearly supports this decision, showing that social distancing can contain the virus

But social distancing can also be dangerous and – in the very worst case scenario – can kill us. Research has convincingly demonstrated that people who are physically and socially isolated die more quickly. The link between social and physical isolation is even stronger than between health and being obese or not, drinking six glasses of alcohol per day or not, exercising regularly or not, and equal to smoking sixteen cigarettes per day or not. The impact of social distancing in the current situation can even make things worse. Loneliness can force people to ignore the recommendations to stay away from others, especially friends and family. So how can we avoid spreading the virus, while not creating another, unintended consequence?

The Relationship Simulator 

The first solution that comes to mind is to schedule frequent calls via social media. That is a good first step. But, as everyone who skyped with a loved one knows, it is not enough. Physical proximity is incredibly important. People live in societies and relate to each other for good reasons. It used to help us to more easily gather food, to cope with dangers and predators, and to keep each other warm. We can deal with all of these problems pretty well now without direct contact. But these problems all have had consequences for our psychological makeup: we still need to be with others to stay alive. Being socially connected is a basic biological need: the late John Cacioppo likened the feeling of loneliness to hunger.  So what can we do to reduce our hunger for human contact when we need to socially distance? 

Food gathering and dealing with predators are not our main concern anymore. But we still co-regulate our temperature with others even though we have modern ways to keep us warm. We rarely think about body temperature regulation in a social context but thermoregulation is inherently social. It is a major factor in determining why people enter and nurture social relationships. Our knowledge is based on diverse research findings, as there is considerable neural overlap between social and thermoregulatory behaviors, while people’s social networks protect them from the cold , and people respond in social ways to temperature fluctuations

How the EmbrWave works

What we all intuitively understand is that touch is important for our physical and mental well-being and social thermoregulation is the reason why. That is why social distancing can have adverse consequences for our health. So how to resolve this conundrum – to keep both our distance and literal warmth of human contact? We hope to build a “relationship simulator” that can emulate the intimacy of touch (via temperature fluctuations) when people are distant from each other. In a first phase, we want to connect a device that can warm or cool a person (the EmbrWave) to programs like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, and Zoom so that people can warm and cool each other with just one click of a button during the call or conversation to simulate real-life social contact. In that first phase, we will also measure people’s temperature to see how they respond. In the next phase, we will be able to adjust the temperature manipulation through an algorithm, so that the temperature manipulation (through the EmbrWave and the sensors) can simulate intimacy automatically while people are far apart. 

Who/what do we need to make this happen?

This may seem like a distant dream, but we believe it is in reach and we can build it now. Our team can construct and evaluate the validity of what we measure through psychometric and quantitative modelling. To make this happen, we will need the following:

– Programmers that can connect the EmbrWave with programs like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, and Zoom.
– Programmers that will connect temperature sensors with the same types of programs. 
– Safe data storage to store the data in and a server powerful enough to help conduct computations.
– Experts to help test a prototype that can learn during interactions.
– Experts on data privacy laws, to ensure we do not interfere with privacy/law while we collect the data.
– Additional data scientists to help data experts from our team to most accurately interpret and model the data.
– Scientists to help organize this project and conduct the necessary research.
– Thermoregulation experts to further test our sensors and replace it if necessary (we currently use the ISP131001 sensor).
– Core body temperature sensors to model the process (current – excellent – solutions like the GreenTEG body sensor are too expensive for our team and the individual user).
– Sensors and EmbrWaves being made available for different users: this costs a considerable amount of money. 

While we build the relationship simulator, these temperature sensors can also be used to quickly detect fevers and other problems with people’s health, so there will be other benefits of this system. To join our team or to contribute to our cause, please fill in this form

This blog post was written by Anna Szabelska, EmbrLabs, and Hans IJzerman

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