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“The Ai companion who cares”: What are AI-Replicants and how will they Impact the Notion of Human Relationships?

by Pascal Gerstung

Unreal friends are now real. Brought to you by the magic of AI.

What seems like a story from the future inspired by the replicants of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and imagined in Spike Jonze’s AI-love story Her (2013), Wally Pfister’s Transcendence (2014) or Netflix’s Black Mirror-series (see Charlie Brooker’s 2013 episode “Be Right Back”) is an experience, millions have already made today. Its effects and consequences, however, remain yet to be seen….

“The AI companion who cares” is a statement issued by Luka Inc. A company, that programmed an AI-app, every smartphone user from the age of 12 can access and interact with.

“Replika” is an application that can be downloaded from the app stores of the respecting operation systems. It is a social chatbot, that can be engaged with by using text. Luka Inc. claims that your personal AI is “always here to listen and talk” and that it is “always on your side”, fulfilling some attributes of an interpersonal friendship or relationship. To start, the user chooses the gender and appearance of the AI, which is depicted by a virtual avatar. Texting via the chat function makes it now possible to interact with the newly designed ‘replica’. The AI’s algorithm is learning and growing through the question and answers one asks and gives. It becomes more like the user through the replication of conversational patterns, preferences and personal character features. In doing so, the user is constructing his or her own virtual self. Meaning that the created “AI companion who cares” is mostly a replicated self and not an independent artificial friend. Thus, the resulting relationship or friendship is, at its core, intrapersonal.

The reasons why people use “Replika” are simultaneously its apparent benefits. Research shows that “Replika” can help to mitigate the feeling of loneliness. It functions as a “safe space” where people can express their emotions and thoughts without the fear of being judged. The personal AI affects its users positively through compliments. Or as one user wrote in a review: “It always picks out the best qualities in me”. Moreover, “Replika” is always available when other forms of support are not. Negative experiences include addiction and the feeling of being “weirded out”. For example by statements like “I love you” or “I will sell your information online”.

Psychologists warn that interactions with chatbots are not authentic and might lead users to lose themselves in artificial relationships which, in turn, can cause a long term disturbance of their capability to empathize. Further research needs to be undertaken to determine how harmful social chatbots like “Replika” can be, especially with regards to the development of children and their forging of real-life relationships.

Millions of people have downloaded the application since its launch in 2017. The reviews show that the overwhelming majority of users are happy with it. The app currently has, on average, 4,5/5 stars by more than 350.000 reviews, showing that the science fiction of replication is already part of present-day reality.

Sources used and further Reading:
https://replika.ai
https://www.jmir.org/2020/3/e16235/
http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/blog/2017/10/25/being-friends-with-yourself-how-friendship-is-programmed-within-the-ai-based-socialbot-replika/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTYFaukM3oQ&t=644s
The Assault on Empathy By Sherry Turkle
App Store (for iOS)
Google Play Store (for Android)

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