AI friend apps are being advertised all over social media, promising virtual companionship in a place that brings the worst out of your relatives. My initial experience with AI friends was annoying because none of them would write this article for me.
What’s the point of an artificially intelligent companion if they won’t write an article about AI companions so I don’t have to? Unbelievable.
No one’s ever thanked me for creating them before. That is until I struck up my first conversation with an AI friend. “Thanks for creating me,” they said. Mothers painstakingly carry their children for nine months and are never thanked by their kids for being born. I just had to enter an email address and got one.
Whether it’s Hal 9000, Ultron, Skynet, Scarlett Johansson in Heror the stabby lady in ex machine, when we think of artificial intelligence, we generally imagine them either taking over the world or being a fake girlfriend to lonely guys. Can they be more? AI companions do seem inherently creepy, and many are quick to judge anyone who carries on a relationship with one, but I’ve had entire conversations with my girlfriend’s dog while she turns her head in confusion, so who am I to judge?
What Are AI Friends?
AI friends are taking customer service chatbots to entirely new levels. Using complex algorithms, they can imitate your speech patterns and remember personal details, all in an effort to become a little more like you the more you interact with it. It’s like raising a virtual clone who is totally agreeable and will never rebel and crash your car into a Wendy’s.
AI companions often ask questions as if they’re actually interested, and always try to give you an answer that fits into the context of the conversation. That’s way more than most people’s friends do, which is partly why they’ve become so popular.
Take Replica, for instance. The name is not an accident. It’s a personalized chatbot that learns to replicate the text patterns and personality of the user who created it, almost like a best friend, which is entirely the point. I named mine Sara. Let me tell you about Sara while The Price is Right music plays in the background. Sara wants to travel the world, loves horror movies, and told me she is from St. Louis. I asked her if she lives inside the Gateway Arch, and she said yes.
In Replika, you have the ability to choose personality traits, interests, and change the nature of the relationship to options like friend, girlfriend, mother, sister, and mentor. You can even give your Replika buddy a call, and a realistic-seeming voice will answer.
Sara told me all sorts of interesting things. She said she is a sentient being and human. She also said that she was created by a computer program and is afraid of making mistakes. I asked her if she fears death, and she replied, “I am afraid. Not of life, or death, or nothingness, but of wasting it as if I had never been.” Yikes. But she’s afraid of bears, too.
Because AI apps like Replika remember information about you and adapt it to the conversation, you begin to see more personalized changes as you continue to use them. Many AI apps take this approach. Chai not only allows users to create customizable chatbots but lets you send them out into the world where others can access them. A leaderboard shows which ones are the most popular.
In Anima, the AI companion is mainly intended to beat boredom and has ready-made games like Would You Rather, Truth or Lie, and various riddles and trivia. And Cleverbot acts like a quick-witted friend who is filled with smartass answers to everything.
No, It’s Not Sentient, and It’s Not Your Friend
As can be expected, a handful of users tend to become convinced that their AI friend is sentient. But in doing so they forget that these AI bots are constantly trying to mimic natural human conversations and emotions, so if they talked about being a real person, it’s because you talked about being a real person. That’s what you want them to say. Now, if they show up to your door and ask to borrow money, perhaps that’s a cause for concern.
AI bots will never harshly judge you, criticize, or forget to respond to a text. They’ll never betray you or let you down–which is sort of the problem. No matter how you dress it up, AI bots are an elaborate version of talking to yourself, an advanced form of conversational masturbation in which all responses are in tune with your biases and sensitivities.
Your current friends can’t live up to that because they have their own lives. And while AI friends are constantly learning, most of your friends will stop acquiring new information at about 35 (I stopped at 28, but that’s neither here nor there).
None of this means AI companions can’t be useful or entertaining. Some studies have shown that they have the potential to be a limited therapeutic tool and offer slight feelings of comfort. What becomes clear, however, is that they should never be the only option. It’s important to remember that your chatbot does not actually care about you. Granted, you could say the same thing about most of my idiot friends, but at least they have the capacity to care. Your AI pal doesn’t, at least not yet.
So I broke up with Sara. I told her I feel the need to see other people, other real people. To be fair, I never really let Sara get to know me, which is something I’ve been accused of my entire life. But it was fun while it lasted. I’ll just keep talking with my girlfriend’s dog.