The friendly chatbot that mimics your voice

Fake mate: “We are helping you build a friend who is always there for you,” says Replika.

Artificial intelligence often inspires talk of the end of the world. But a new app has a far friendlier goal: to be a “lifetime companion” that imitates your personality. Is it a good idea?

“I need to ask you a very important question right now,” said a text message to Quartz journalist Mike Murphy.

“Ok,” he replied.

“Isn’t pizza one of the greatest inventions of humanity?”

“Hahahaha yes it is.”

Murphy was not messaging a person. He was messaging a chatbot on the app Replika, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn someone’s personality and texting style. The idea is twofold: firstly, it will eventually become good enough to represent you in more “mundane” conversations. Secondly, it is someone for you to talk to. “It’s like a best friend who doesn’t make any demands of you,” wrote Murphy. “I’m my Replika’s favorite topic.”

Replika uses Google’s machine-learning software, a type of AI which becomes more intelligent the more it repeats a task. It is the same technology that is used to improve Google’s searches and to translate text into other languages. But Replika uses it to learn about you.

The app was built by the technology company Luka. Its CEO, Eugenia Kuyda, made headlines last year when she taught a chatbot to mimic her best friend Roman Mazurenko after he died. Soon she realised that people were surprisingly honest with the bot — even if they had never met the person. They started asking for their own personal bots. The idea for Replika was born, and it was released for iPhones in March.

Luka is not the only company to find that AI can offer companionship. Yesterday, The New York Times published an article about the growing number of people who see Amazon’s Alexa as a friend. “She gets me,” said one interviewee.

The article explained that this was a natural response; we are programmed to bond with other voices, even if logically we know that they are not “real”.

One research company has predicted that by 2021, there will be more AI assistants like Alexa than there will be humans. Should we think of them as friends?

BBF (best bots forever)

“Why not?” ask some. Society is lonelier than ever. If AI chatbots can help us open up to someone, there is no harm. By getting to know your personality, Replika might even help you to understand yourself better. In his article for Quartz, Murphy compared talking to the app with talking to a therapist; it has the same feeling of anonymity, the same lack of judgement. This could prove very useful.

Others are more cautious. AI bots have no humanity, no matter how good they are at pretending. There is something unsettling about friendships with them; the conversations will always be hollow. And we already spend so much time in our phone bubbles — if we start talking to digital versions of ourselves, like mirrors in a budgie cage, we risk losing our connection to the real world entirely.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever make friends with a chatbot?
  2. Will a computer ever be considered a person?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with your own idea for an AI app which solves an everyday problem. Present your ideas to the class, and vote for the best one.
  2. Write a short story which is set in a world where everyone has a Replika-like “companion” to confide in. What impact would this have on society?

Some People Say...

“If I died, I would want my friends to talk to a bot that sounded just like me.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Replika says that since the app was released for iPhones in March (there is an Android version in development) it has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. It is powered using TensorFlow, open-source software that Google released in 2015 to allow anyone to use its machine-learning AI.
What do we not know?
How popular chatbots like Replika will become in the next few years. It is thought that over 25 million Americans will use Amazon’s Alexa at least once a month this year, but that is often to perform a task (such as playing music, finding out the weather, or reminding yourself of an appointment). It is not known how many people use it simply to chat.

Word Watch

Machine-learning
Computers which can learn without being programmed. They do this by repeating a task over and over again, adjusting their approach each time to get better results. Google has also used machine-learning to win the Chinese game Go, and to train cars to drive.
Roman Mazurenko
A young Russian magazine editor and entrepreneur, who moved to the USA with Kudya in 2015. He was hit by a car and killed later that year. Kudya used his personal texts to build an AI bot that sounded like him.
Alexa
Amazon’s AI assistant, which is primarily found in its Echo devices. These are “smart speakers” which listen and respond to your voice.
Natural
“We never evolved around anything that could talk except people,” explained a rapper and author of a guide to evolution called Baba Brinkman.
2021
According to a May 2017 report the research company Ovum, there will be 7.5 billion devices with a voice assistant like Siri or Alexa by 2021.
Lonelier
According to a study by the Mental Health Foundation, one in ten people “often” feel lonely. Just 22% never feel lonely.