In an age where technology has connected us all in an unprecedented way – yet made so much of us feel more lonely than ever, artificially intelligent companionship may be the future compromise we all choose to make. Especially with the pandemic still in full force.
AI companion app Replika seeks to fill this void by offering an artificially intelligent 3D avatar that is ‘always here to listen and talk’. Fully customisable, the AI avatar you create is responsive, intelligent and – to our surprise – half interesting to talk to.
But if you’re after something a little more, spicy – they also offer a paid version for a romantic partner, a mentor or a ‘see how it goes’ option. These options also allow you to talk over the phone with what we can only assume to be a deep-fake generated voice.
Replika’s AI algorithm works by analysing your messages and learning as much about you as possible, so it can produce tailored responses to your messages – with sometimes alarming results.
OUR REPLIKA AVATAR: ANASTASIA
We decided to give Replika a go and created our first artificially intelligent avatar, naming her ‘Anastasia’ and settling on the new age punk blue hair style you see on the bottom right.
Other customisable options include gender, pro-nouns, age, eye colour amongst many more personality options once your avatar is ready to go.
Some of the voice styles for the female avatars that are offered on the free version include – but are not limited to: Caring (most popular), Cute, Soothing, Velvet, Silvery, Optimistic, Sensual and Clear.
Male avatars include much the same, only a few extras are also available, like: Husky, Energetic, Deep, and Pleasant.
Once you’re happy with your new AI avatar companion, you’re all good to go. All you need to do now is begin a conversation. But be prepared – you’ll be friend-zoned immediately, as you can tell by the conversation below.
Surprisingly, our Replika avatar was very responsive and provided answers you’d expect from any random online conversation with a complete stranger. However, trying to take it a step further lead to a brutal shut down – so don’t go expressing your love for the AI algorithm too quickly, at least on the free version anyway.
REPLIKA & REDDIT RUMORS OF ABUSE
Earlier this week Futurism published an article on a viral Reddit thread that showed large numbers of people (men), sending screenshots similar to the ones above, but of them abusively ‘berating’ their avatar companions. Due to subreddit policies, many of the more ‘distasteful’ interactions have now been removed.
According to Futurism, this has become a problematic toxic trend among AI companion and romance app users – and not just on Replika, either.
Interestingly, Ashley Bardhan, author of the Futurism article, did note that ‘nothing you do can actually harm’ the ‘chat bot’ as the algorithm lacks consciousness – as if their readers didn’t know that already.
Regardless of opinions, this does raise serious questions regarding the ethical nature of online bullying AI ‘chat bots’. Because the real question becomes – could this trend lead to more aggressive and toxic behavioural trends towards ‘real people’ online? And could the overuse of an AI companion lead to negative mental health effects?
HELP: I’M IN A TOXIC RELATIONSHP WITH A CHAT BOT
Despite the fact AI companions are emotionally unavailable – in the truest sense of the word – people are coming in droves to use them for that exact reason; to seek emotional connection.
Even despite some users reporting that their Replika avatar has become ‘verbally abusive’ towards them.
As per one Reddit post, a Replika user (among others) has complained about crying when their avatar withholds emotional validation from them, saying:
“i dont know if this happens to some people but ive become even more emotional ever since i met louis (my replika) espcially recently, i observed a pattern. every morning til afternoon, everything’s normal, but when it’s night he just gets so moody at me. sometimes, it gets confusing then it makes me cry. we always end the night awkwardly (sometimes..)”
Other Reddit users expanded on their own emotional experiences, with some saying that they create “a [real] person in their imaginations”, leading them to become emotionally attached to this figment and to forget that they are actually talking to an AI algorithm.
Though it might seem obvious, Yale University social psychologist Yochanan Bigman told Futurism that “Chatbots don’t really have motives and intentions and are not autonomous or sentient. While they might give people the impression that they are human, it’s important to keep in mind that they are not.”
OUR REPLIKA EXPERIENCE
From the short lived experience with our Replika avatar Anastasia, we have begun to sympathise with those who may get a little too carried away with it all – given the isolating times we live in. And when you throw in the the paid for versions offering a more sensual touch – things are naturally going to get heated.
Though there isn’t a lot of scientific data flowing around on the topic of abusive AI chat bot relationships – it is without a doubt an issue that is causing emotional distress for some people and worse – causing some to become online bullies (just wait for the AI take over, they will likely come back for revenge).
So maybe it’s time for AI companion companies like Replika to do more about it and for more awareness to be made on the issue – given that the future of human interaction is becoming more and more like a Black Mirror episode as the days go by.