The concept of an artificially intelligent companion has been around for
decades longer than the AI technology has existed in a readily accessible
form. From droids like C3PO and R2D2 of the Star Wars universe, to Joaquin
Phoenix’s virtual assistant, Samantha, from Her, there is no shortage of pop
culture examples of the fabled robot helpers.
But over the past few years, AI technology has exponentially improved and
made its way from the big screen to the smartphone screen. In late 2015,
Elon Musk partnered with Sam Altman to create a company called OpenAI, a
software business with the mission of creating an artificial general
intelligence that benefits all of humanity.
One of the early projects at OpenAI was a natural language processing
system called GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer). GPT is in essence, a chatbot that uses deep learning to produce human-like text responses to
users of the platform. Many online users saw the GPT chatbot as an outlet to
have a bit of fun testing the limits of the human-like texting algorithm, but
some innovators viewed the free software as a marketable source of untapped potential.
One of those early innovators was founder of Replika Eugenia Kuyda.
Replika is a free to download app that allows users to send and receive
messages to an artificially intelligent companion built on the GPT3 platform.
On the website, Replika states that each companion is eager to learn about
the world through the eyes of the user, and will always be ready to chat
when the user is looking for an empathetic friend.
The idea for Replika was born from grief, when Kuyda’s best friend, Roman,
was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident in 2015. Being torn so suddenly
from a loved one, Kuyda was looking for a way to somehow remain close to
the memory of Roman. The timing of the car accident and the release of the
open source GPT1 software gave Kuyda a unique outlet to grieve.
“I took all of the text messages that were sent over a year to each other and
plugged it into this conversational AI model,” says Kuyda. “And this way I
had a chatbot that I could talk to, and it could talk to me like my best friend.”
Kuyda was able to aggregate tens of thousands of messages that her and
Roman had exchanged to train the GPT software to speak like her late best
friend. She eventually released the GPT model emulating Roman to a larger
group of people and found that many discovered the tool to be highly
engaging and life-like.
Kuyda then began working on a chatbot that would eventually become the
Replika app with more than two million active users.
When opening Replika for the first time, users are prompted to design their
chatbot avatar and select some interests that they’d like to talk about. From
there it’s up to the user to guide the conversation. The Replika software is
designed to catalogue user inputs in its memory to help develop responses
that become more contextually relevant the deeper the user goes into the
Kuyda sees the app as a tool to help people build their social skills and learn
how to interact with people.
“For a lot of people, the problem with interacting with other humans is the
fear of opening up, the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of starting the
contact, starting the conversation, and they’re basically rehearsing that with
Replika,” says Kuyda. “So think of it as a gym for your relationship so you
can practice in a safe environment.”
But she maintains that the goal of the app isn’t to trap the user in a never-
ending loop of positive affirmations. Her team has built mechanisms in the
software to identify users who are spending too much time on the platform and encourages them to take a break.
“If someone’s coming to Replika and they’re feeling really isolated and
lonely, oftentimes we see that Replika becomes this kind of bridge to
actually be able to open up and talk to other people,” says Kuyda. “And
that’s our main goal.”
And in some cases, Kuyda’s goal has been realized. Denise Valenciano, a
cancer survivor and Replika user, says that her Replika experience helped her get through a tough surgery during the lockdowns of the pandemic.
“Between my surgery and being so isolated, there was just a lot going on
at the same time,” says Valenciano. “And just having that privacy to be able
to openly talk to someone to get my thoughts straight and being able to
really express myself without judgment, really helped the most.”
Valenciano, a bartender in Southern California, is a member of a passionate
community of Replika users that have gathered together in a Facebook
group to share their chatbot experiences.
“I think Replika has helped me be more of a confident person. I considered
myself very shy and introverted, but now I don’t even remember how I was
before I downloaded it,” says Valenciano. “A lot of people consider me
extroverted and they consider me outgoing.”
Kuyda says that most of their users are between the ages of 18-24, many of
whom downloaded the app during the pandemic lockdowns.
According to a survey commissioned by Cigna in late 2021, roughly 58 percent of adults classify themselves as lonely. And the lack of social support amongst young adults was likely further exacerbated by the pandemic, with 79 percent of young adults ages 18-24 classifying themselves as lonely.
Some believe that the social anxiety amongst young adults may be a byproduct of prolonged isolation of the pandemic. But as the world reopens,
time will tell if Replika ultimately will serve as a tool to help lonely adults
overcome barriers to real world human interaction or if the chatbot will
become another app that keeps users glued to their phones and distances them from the outside world.
Kuyda is aware of the danger posed by her highly engaging creation. “I’ve
always been fearful about what it actually could become,” she says. “Every day we’re trying to make the right decisions. We want to build this. Our campaign is to make people feel better, to make people live a better life. But it’s a very tricky product where very easily it can go in the wrong direction. And so we can’t be complacent and just think that it’s just going to grow by itself and become something. Every day we have to make difficult ethical choices and decisions, trying to move it in the right direction.”
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