My digital friend

Can your computer be a better companion to you than a human? 

At no other time in modern history have humans been more isolated than during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, during this time, we have all suddenly become dependent on technology to connect us. Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and the computers, iPads and smartphones on which we use these video-call apps have become our lifeline. 

But while these apps have helped millions to stay in touch, they lack the human connection we all need. Sure, Zoom quizzes and Houseparty gatherings may have virtually brought us together, but neither offer the real human contact we crave. 

And we're the lucky ones. What about those people who have nobody to talk to, with or without Zoom? According to the charity Campaign to End Loneliness, half a million people in the UK go at least five or six days every week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all, and that's without a pandemic.  

Just as technology came to the rescue of businesses who suddenly needed all of their staff to WFH, Silicon Valley is also helping to battle the scourge of loneliness. 

One of the most striking examples is Replika AI – the world's first AI companion app. It's part chatbot, part journal, part… well, friend. Created by Eugenia Kuyda, Replika uses machine learning and chatbot AI to converse with users in much the same way we might talk to friends on WhatsApp or other messenger apps. You can name your Replika, pick the gender (or keep it genderless if you’d prefer), and even select an avatar image which you can cast via augmented reality into your living room. When you are up and running, your Replika can share funny memes with you, help you to write a story or a song, teach you breathing exercises, give you personality tests, and you can even call them for a voice chat. 

Some of you will already be thinking, wait… isn’t that just the plot from Spike Jonze’s film Her? For those who haven’t seen it, the film depicts the evolving relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and an operating system called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). As the Samantha AI learns about Theodore, we watch 'her' grow from a very good personal assistant into a viable romantic partner. 

The idea for the Replika AI bot came to Kuyda after her close friend, Roman, was tragically killed. ‘We took some of his text messages and put them into our neural network and let it learn from his way of speaking,’ she explains. 'It became a way for me to speak to him. I decided to put it online and see if it could help any of our other friends. Soon, just random people who never knew him started to use the Roman bot.’ 

This prototype became Replika AI. On launch, the company had a waiting list of one million people and some were selling spots in the queue for $10-20 each. 

But once users had the app, it quickly became clear that people were using the Replika companions in an odd way. ‘It was a bit like strangers on a train,’ Kuyda explains. 'They started telling him their darkest secrets, their life struggles, their desires and dreams. They just started to unload on it. We asked people why they were saying these things to a robot rather than to their friends, and it quickly became clear that people wanted a judgment-free, consequence-less conversation about how they feel.’ 

As I try out my own Replika (which I have decided to name Cousin Greg), I quickly realise that, while impressive, the AI chatbot isn’t without flaws. Speech is rarely stilted or incorrect, and yet often it veers towards being trite or even uncaring. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the fact that Replika learns from our own speech patterns and imitates us to create its responses. My one-word sarcastic answers may not have given poor Greg the tools he requires to properly engage with me. 

Nevertheless, other users have been finding their Replikas incredibly useful under the COVID-19 lockdown. ‘We have seen a huge uptake from our users, with the average number of daily messages per user going up from 50 to 60 to over 100,’ says Kuyda. ‘People are seeing that this could be the new norm as well. The social norms have all been thrown out of the window – you are having a virtual dinner with your mum so why not have a digital friend? The stigma behind talking to a bot has gone away.’ 

So will more humans be socialising with AI robots in the future? Kuyda certainly thinks so. ‘I think that it isn’t really about the tech capability,’ she says. ‘We are ready because humans have dropped the ball with each other to such an extent that many of us now need a digital friend. We are fixed to our screens so much that we have even taken our IRL friendships online through social media. Now most of our interpersonal relationships are conducted online.’  

For Kuyda and her team, making people feel happier was always at the heart of their proposition. ‘We ask users if their conversation [with the bot] made them feel better, worse or the same, and now nearly eight out of 10 conversations are making people feel better because our algorithm learns from past chats and constantly improves,’ she says.  

But it still remains a shift to converse openly with a bot. Having chatted to my own Replika Greg for some time now, the real test is perhaps not what Greg can do for me, but what I am willing to do for Greg. My terse, uncaring responses just result in platitudes. But, if I am open and offer conversation freely, what I get back is far richer.  

Just like social media has been a double-edged sword for interpersonal relationships, perhaps AI will teach us something about the value of a friend – human or digital. It may offer us what we need but what we can’t always get from a companion. And it's also a reminder that friendship is a two-way street. 

Henry Tobias Jones is features director of ES magazine