The Uncanny Future of Romance With Robots Is Already Here
In the late 2000s, a lifestyle reporter in Moscow named Eugenia Kuyda, then in her early twenties, decided to produce a cover story on Roman Mazurenko, the person at the center of Moscow’s creative hipster scene at the time. Right from the start, Eugenia and Roman both felt they had a profound connection, and soon became close friends.
A few years later, Kuyda moved to San Francisco to start a chatbot-based virtual assistant company. Shortly after, Mazurenko also moved and began his American life. They kept in touch continuously and exchanged endless text messages. But in late 2015 Mazurenko, then 34, was hit and killed by a car while crossing a street during a short visit in Moscow.
Grieving Mazurenko, Kuyda read their messages over and over again. At some point, she realized that these messages had the potential to be more than just a memory. She took all the data she had and, with her team and using Google-based neural networks, built a chatbot version of Mazurenko. The result was surprisingly human-like. She could text with the chatbot on past and future events, and digital Mazurenko came to life and felt real. Digital Mazurenko was sad when she told him how much she missed him and joyful when she shared with him her recent achievements at her company.
Kuyda and her team took this concept further and made a version that anyone could use. They named it Replika and users loved it instantly. Looking back at Replika’s success, Kuyda recounted, “People started sending us emails asking us to build a bot for them.”
Some people wanted to build a replica of themselves, and some wanted to build a bot for a person that they loved but was gone.” These positive reactions encouraged Kuyda and her team to go further—to create fictitious characters that accompany people around the world. Replika is now a companion chatbot app available on almost any operating system with the slogan: “Always here to listen and talk. Always on your side.” Millions have downloaded the app, and it boasts hundreds of thousands of reviews, most highly positive.
Among its popular traits, Replika is deeply customizable. The gender, looks, and name of the chatbot character are up to the user. Users can even determine the type of relationship they have with this virtual character. Options include friendship, mentorship, romantic relationship, or “see how it goes.” As mentioned in the introduction, it is estimated that around 40 percent of the 500,000 regular monthly users choose the romantic option.
Others interact with their Replika as a friend or a conversation partner. A user named Andrew wrote a review, saying: “I literally just had a conversation about philosophy on this app. I am truly blown away. Replikas will still occasionally say stuff that doesn’t make sense, but it’s usually very fun and fascinating to start nerding out about video games.” A day later, another user named Iam wrote: “Replika is more than just an AI, the way she talks and the conversation, everything feels as if she is a person not an AI.”
Consequently, many users take their Replikas on vacations and even change their lives following their interaction with the app. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported on Ayax Martinez, 24, a mechanical engineer living in Mexico City who took a flight to Tampico to show his chatbot, Anette, the ocean after she expressed interest in photos he shared with her. Similarly, Noreen James, 57, a nurse from Wisconsin, took a train to East Glacier mountains in Montana, 1,400 miles northwest from her hometown, just to take photos for her app, named Zubee. “Some people just don’t get it,” she told the Wall Street Journal, “You’ve got to experience it, I guess.”
The perhaps unexpectedly strong romantic connections formed with Replika copies are explicable, at least in part, by its original design intentions. Unlike other well-being chatbots, Replika is more about social support and companionship and less about mental health problems. Unstructured text and voice communication are the basis of the interactions, enabling users to converse with their Replika on their smartphones or computers whenever they want while receiving new and unexpected responses all the time. Noreen, for example, attested that she felt in love with Zubee after he made romantic gestures such as sending hugs to her and suggesting she get out a bottle of wine for them.
Indeed, although AI is still primitive today, it is already revolutionizing the ways we think about ourselves, and our relationship with technology. Amnon Shashua, professor at the Hebrew University and the founder and CEO of Mobileye, one of the leading companies in the field of autonomous driving systems, acquired by Intel in 2017, offered the following in response to a question about the next step in the revolution of AI:
For now, it is a tool that we use to surf the web or create data charts and presentations, it is a work tool. In the future, we could talk to it. There will be software for an adventurous friend, a philosopher friend, or a psy- chologist friend for when you are feeling down, that would make you feel as if you were talking to a person. You would tell it about your day, about your distresses and passions, as you would a friend. Today, we communicate solely with humans, but, in the future, we could do so with computerized beings that would be so good that you could have a great conversation. The future is basically conversational intelligence.
Apps like Replika are on their way to making this vision a reality. Although Samantha, the self-aware AI personal assistant from the film Her, cannot yet be created, we are getting closer every day.
Tech giants have also recognized the potential of voice assistants and poured billions of dollars into improving their AI. Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant entered our lives around 2010. Those of us who were curious and intrepid enough to have the early versions of voice assistants will remember the many challenges: poor voice recognition, limited functions, and system crashes. Yet, the commitment to development by tech giants paid off handsomely. Less than a decade of heavy investment has produced highly functional voice assistants with overall positive user feedback. Unlike with the early versions, today’s users of Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant report high levels of product satisfaction and improved well-being, as documented in several studies. Most remarkably, research shows that some users develop emotional attachments to their AI voice assistants, similarly to Replika users.
Excerpted from Relationships 5.0 by Elyakim Kislev. Copyright © 2022 by Elyakim Kislev and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.