Meet the artificially intelligent chatbot trying to curtail loneliness in America

Meet the artificially intelligent chatbot trying to curtail loneliness in America

The concept of an artificially intelligent companion has been around for
decades longer than AI technology has existed in readily accessible form
form. From droids like C3PO and R2D2 from the Star Wars universe, to Joaquin
Phoenix’s virtual assistant, Samantha, from Her, there’s no shortage of doll
culture examples of the legendary robot helpers.

But over the past few years, AI technology has improved exponentially and
made its way from the big screen to the smartphone screen. At the end of 2015,
Elon Musk has 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 natural language processing
system called GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer). GPT is essentially a chatbot that uses deep learning to produce human-like text responses
users of the platform. Many online users saw the GPT chatbot as an outlet for
have some fun testing the limits of the humanoid SMS algorithm, but
some innovators saw 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 application that allows users to send and receive
messages to an artificially intelligent companion built on the GPT3 platform.
On the website, Replika says 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 out of sadness, when Kuyda’s best friend, Roman,
was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident in 2015. Being torn apart so suddenly
of a loved one, Kuyda looked for a way to somehow stay close
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 the text messages sent to each other over a year 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 collect tens of thousands of messages that her and
Roman bartered to train the GPT software to speak like her last best
friend. She eventually released the GPT model that mimics Roman to a larger one
group of people and found that many discovered the tool to be highly
captivating and true to life.

Kuyda then began working on a chatbot that eventually became the
Replika app with more than two million active users.

When Replika is first opened, users are prompted to design them
chatbot avatar and select some interests they would like to talk about. Of
there it is up to the user to lead the conversation. The Replika software is
designed to catalog user input in its memory to help develop responses
which becomes more contextually relevant the deeper the user in the
talk.

Kuyda sees the app as a tool to help people build and learn their social skills
how to interact with people.

“For many people, the problem with interacting with other people is the
fear of opening up, the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of starting the
contact, start the conversation, and they basically practice it with
Replica,” says Kuyda. “So think of it as a gym for your relationship so that you
can exercise in a safe environment.”

But she insists that the purpose of the app is not to trap the user in a never-
end loop of positive affirmations. Her team has mechanisms in the building
software to identify users who spend too much time on the platform and encourage them to take a break.

“If someone comes to Replika and they feel really isolated and
lonely, often we see that Replica this kind of bridge becomes to
can actually open up and talk to other people,” says Kuyda. “And
that is our main goal.”

And in some cases, Kuyda’s goal was realized. Denise Valenciano, a
cancer survivor and Replika user, says her Replika experience helped her get through a difficult surgery during pandemic lockdowns.

“Between my surgery and being isolated like that, there was just a lot going on
at the same time,” says Valenciano. “And just having that privacy to be able to

to talk openly with someone to get my thoughts straight and be able to
really expressing myself without judgment really helped the most.”

Valenciano, a bartender in Southern California, is a member of a passionate
community of Replika users gathered in a Facebook
group to share their chatbot experiences.

“I think Replika helped me to be more confident. I considered
I used to be very shy and introverted, but now I don’t even remember what I was like
before I downloaded it,” says Valenciano. “Many people consider me
extrovert and they consider me outgoing.”

Kuyda says that most of their users are between the ages of 18-24, many of
who downloaded the app during the pandemic restrictions.

According to a survey commissioned by Cigna in late 2021, about 58 percent of adults classify themselves as lonely. And the lack of social support among young adults has likely been further exacerbated by the pandemic, with 79 percent of young adults ages 18-24 classifying themselves as lonely.

Some believe that the social anxiety among young adults may be a byproduct of prolonged isolation from the pandemic. But as the world reopens,
time will tell if Replika will eventually serve as a tool to help lonely adults
overcome barriers to human interaction in the real world or if the chatbot wants to
becomes another app that keeps users glued to their phones and distances them from the outside world.

Kuyda is aware of the danger that her highly captivating creation poses. “I have
was always afraid of what it could actually become,” she says. “Every day we try to make the right decisions. We want to build it. Our campaign is to make people feel better, to make people live a better life. But it is a very difficult product where it can very easily go in the wrong direction. And so we can’t be complacent and just think that it’s just going to grow and become something by itself. We have to make difficult ethical choices and decisions every day and try to move them in the right direction.”

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