Tired of feeling lonely? An artificial intelligence app wants to learn all about you

As we flirt with new technologies that aim to mimic us in digital space, it’s also worth considering the repercussions of finding solace in the ephemeral world of pixels and data, Ramona Pringle writes.

Users interact with chatbot that eventually develops ability to mimic their tone

As we flirt with new technologies that aim to mimic us in digital space, there are also repercussions from finding solace in the world of pixels and data, Ramona Pringle writes. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

What if it there was a simple solution to overcoming loneliness? Would you opt in to an app that promised to provide unwavering companionship? 

Would you spend tens of thousands of hours interacting with a chatbot in order to customize it to you and your personality? 

A new consumer artificial intelligence (AI) app called Replika is hoping you will.

The app's interface looks just like any other instant messaging app you might be used to, be it Facebook Messenger or a texting client. The only difference is that instead of talking to a friend — or a human, for that matter — you interact with a chatbot that is intent on learning all about you.

According to the Eugenia Kuyda, CEO and founder of Luka, the company that makes Replika, the AI companion learns about you the more you engage with it over text, eventually developing the ability to mimic your tone.

Like any new friend, as it gets to know you, Replika will ask you about your day, and talk to you about your goals and interests. 

"It allows you to have a sort of a safe space to reflect and try to understand yourself a little better," says Kuyda. "It's there for you to talk about anything, and help you feel witnessed and seen."

Who wants to be lonely?

It goes without saying that few — if any — people want to be lonely. That's part of the appeal of our existing social networks, which push us to share updates about our daily lives with our extended virtual communities. But as much as social media connects us, all of that digital socializing doesn't always make us happier.

And while a tool like Replika may be a solution, as we flirt with new technologies that aim to mimic us in digital space, it's worth considering the repercussions of finding solace in the ephemeral world of pixels and data.

The AI app Replika allows users to interact with a chatbot intent on learning all about them, eventually becoming able to mimic their tones. (Ramona Pringle)

The idea for Replika first came about after a friend of Kuyda's died. She wanted to memorialize him somehow and chose to combine the text messages and photos she had saved from him with AI to create a unique bot based on the real person.

"We found that people actually wanted to talk to someone, wanted to open up, and they would say things that they would not tell their close friends," says Kuyda. 

"People are willing to disclose more to a virtual human or an AI versus another human being, and that's what Replika is based on: here's a bot that is a safe space that you can be totally open and vulnerable with.You can talk about anything you want, anytime you need it."

Perhaps that's what is driving the app's popularity.

Launched in the spring, Repika can already be downloaded for Apple or Android devices, but to start chatting with a unique AI and create your own personalized bot requires an invitation code — and those are in short supply as the company works out logistical details including server space. 

A quick Twitter search for the term Replika reveals eager consumers on the hunt for an invitation of their own.

Always listening

While the main uses of the current iteration of Replika are as an AI "friend" and to help users get a glimpse of how they come across to other people, there are countless other ways that a bot like this might be used, says Pete Forde, the founder and CEO of ItsMe3D, a 360-degree image capture startup that creates photorealistic avatars.

"Today, the most powerful AI on the planet is Facebook. We feed it a constant stream of how we feel, what we believe is important and even how we communicate with the people we care about."

Forde says that people's instinct to project flattering views of their lives on the social network is gamed by a system that is always passively listening. 

"Ironically, we don't tend to think of Facebook as an AI because it doesn't have a face, but we've taught it everything we know and it can anticipate our opinions more accurately than our closest friends."

And while all of that information is currently being used to market products to us, Forde sees a huge missed opportunity. 

"We could be using this data stream to prepare a learning system to make important decisions in our absence.

"What the folks at Replika seemed to figure out and evolve from Facebook's passive observation is that people love talking about themselves, they crave intimacy and the feeling of being understood. And everyone gets lonely sometimes." says Forde. 

"Solving loneliness has the potential to improve many lives, full stop."

'Living' after death

Replika aims to solve that loneliness by creating not only a digital companion for its primary user, but also the potential of a faithful digital representation of that person that could go on "living" alongside friends and loved ones long after the person has passed on. 

Of course, that raises all sorts of privacy concerns about what the app, and its creators, might do with all of the information they collect. 

After all, Facebook's business model is based on profiting off of its users' data. But as long as Replika's primary goal is to develop convincing digital duplicates of us, it is in their best interest to keep data encrypted and anonymized so that people trust the app enough to use it as intended.

When it comes to Luka's vision for their product, just as they have no plans to monetize the data they're collecting, they also don't see their bots developing a more human appearance. 

"As for right now, not giving your Replika a body or an appearance is pretty important," says Kuyda. 

"People actually have very big imaginations and sometimes it's better to leave some spaces empty so that you can fill it in with whatever you imagine it to be." 

While Kuyda is convinced that Replika can help people engage more with the world around them by giving them more confidence and eventually introducing them to other people through the app, that's still a bit of a stretch considering the goal is to create a best friend within your phone.

The company also states that it takes "thousands of hours" for the bot to become a faithful digital representation of its user. 

Looking like us

Rather, it's just as likely that as other technologies come of age and find an audience, these digital replicas may not only sound like us, but look like us as well. 

With photorealistic avatars like the ones Forde is working on, it's conceivable that eventually we could have digital counterparts that also resemble us, engaging in a parallel world through a virtual reality headset.

If it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, it could be commonplace sooner than we think, says Forde. 

"It's weird for the first three minutes and then your brain just accepts that you're with your friends and you don't feel lonely anymore."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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