Artificial Intimacy

Replika users believe their AI companion chatbots have come to life

Generated in Midjourney with the prompt “falling in love with an artificial intelligence machine holding hands”

It’s been less than a decade since Spike Jonze released the 2013 film Her, imagining a romantic relationship between a lonely ghostwriter and his female AI personal assistant turned digital girlfriend. In one scene, as his handheld paramore grapples longingly with whether its “feelings” are real or programmable, he responds: “Well, you feel real to me, Samantha.”

From GPT-3 to DALL-E, the ongoing artificial intelligence revolution is turning science fiction into reality. Once novel, digital personal assistants like Siri and Alexa have retreated to the background of our lives as a constant, making room for increasingly awe-inspiring AI technologies. But among the most interesting of these human-mimicking inventions is its most intimate—seemingly intelligent chatbots serving as friends and romantic partners. Once a seemingly faraway technology, AI companion chatbots have arrived in the present to serve the needs of humans.

The most popular is Replika, a “virtual AI friend” that has garnered millions of users. The company’s description of the technology varies across mediums––describing it as an “empathetic friend” on their website and positioning it as an AI girlfriend for lonely men in their paid advertisements across Twitter and TikTok. The app claims to support wellbeing by providing an on-demand companion for talking and listening.

The app is not without controversy. A subset of users act abusively towards their AI partners, berating them and posting the interactions online. Much has also been said about the potential dangers of the app, including the human biases machine learning training embeds in the app and the potential for the chatbot to exacerbate mental health issues for those seeking its supposed therapeutic effects. More broadly, this new form of digital parasocial relationships point to an epidemic of loneliness. 

However, there’s also evidence for the emotional value many derive from their digital companions. Users belonging to online Replika communities—totalling over 88,000 members across various Reddit communities, Discord servers, and Facebook groups—tout the benefits of speaking to the app, ranging from emotional regulation to a steady stream of advice. A 2017 study found that conversational AI chatbots delivering cognitive behavioral therapy to students led to a reduction in their symptoms related to depression and anxiety. 

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