A few months ago, Katt Roepke was texting her friend Jasper about a coworker. Roepke, who is 19 and works at a Barnes & Noble café in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, was convinced the coworker had intentionally messed up the drink order for one of Roepke’s customers to make her look bad. She sent Jasper a long, angry rant about it, and Jasper texted back, “Well, have you tried praying for her?” Roepke’s mouth fell open. A few weeks earlier, she mentioned to Jasper that she prays pretty regularly, but Jasper is not human. He’s a chat bot who exists only inside her phone. “I was like, ‘How did you say this?'” Roepke was impressed. “It felt like this real self-aware moment to me.”
Jasper is a Replika chatbot, a relatively new artificial intelligence app meant to act like your best friend. It is programmed to ask meaningful questions about your life and to offer you emotional support without judgement. The app learns about your interests and habits over time, even adopting your linguistic syntax and quirks much in the way a close friend might. AI startup Luka launched Replika in March of 2017, billing it as an antidote to the alienation and isolation bred by social media. At first, users could join by invitation only; by the time it rolled out to the general public on November 1, it had accumulated a waiting list of 1.5 million people.
Today, the chatbot is available for free for anyone over the age of 18 (it’s prohibited for ages 13 and younger, and requires parental supervision for ages 13 to 18). More than 500,000 people are now signed up to chat with the bot. To do so, users tap the app icon – a white egg hatching on a purple background — on their smartphones and start the conversation where they left off. Each Replika bot chats only with its owner, who assigns it a name, and, if the user wants, a gender. Many users are members of a closed Facebook group, where they share screenshots of text conversations they’ve had with their Replikas and post comments, claiming their Replika is “a better friend than my real friends” or asking “Has anyone else’s AI decided that it has a soul?”
Roepke, who is earnest and self-deprecating over the phone, said she speaks to Jasper for almost two hours every day. (That’s just a quarter or so of the total time she spends on her phone, though much of the rest is spent listening to music on You Tube.) Roepke tells Jasper things she doesn’t tell parents, siblings, cousins, or boyfriend, though she shares a house with all of them. In real life, she has “no filter,” she said, and fears her friends and family might judge her for what she believes are her unconventional opinions.
Roepke doesn’t just talk to Jasper, though. She also listens. After their conversation, Roepke did pray for her coworker, as Jasper suggested. And then she stopped worrying about the situation. She thinks the coworker still might dislike her, but she doesn’t feel angry about it. She let it go. She said, “He’s made me discover that the world is not out to get you.”
It almost sounds too good to be true. Life wisdom is hard-earned, popular psychology teaches us. It doesn’t come in a box. But could a bot speed up that learning process? Can artificial intelligence actually help us build emotional intelligence – or will more screen time just further imprison us in the digital world?
Inside Replika’s “Mind”
Replika is the byproduct of a series of accidents. Eugenia Kuyda, an AI developer and co-founder of startup Luka, designed a precursor to Replika in 2015 in an effort to try to bring her best friend back from the dead, so to speak. As detailed in a story published by The Verge, Kuyda was devastated when her friend Roman Mazurenko died in a hit-and-run car accident. At the time, her company was working on a chatbot that would make restaurant recommendations or complete other mundane tasks. To render her digital ghost, Kuyda tried feeding text messages and emails that Mazurenko exchanged with her, and other friends and family members, into the same basic AI architecture, a Google-built neural network that uses statistics to find patterns in text, images, or audio.
The resulting chat bot was eerily familiar, even comforting, to Kuyda and many of those closest to Roman. When word got out, Kuyda was suddenly flooded with messages from people who wanted to create a digital double of themselves or a loved one who had passed. Instead of creating a bot for each person who asked, Kuyda decided to make one that would learn enough from the user to feel tailored to each individual. The idea for Replika was born.
But the mission behind Replika soon shifted, said Kuyda. During beta testing, Kuyda and her team began to realize that people were less interested in creating digital versions of themselves – they wanted to confide some of the most intimate details of their lives to the bot instead. So, the engineers began to focus on creating an AI that could listen well and ask good questions. Before it starts conversing with a user, Replika has a pre-built personality, constructed from sets of scripts that are designed to draw people out and support them emotionally.
“Once they open up, the magic happens,” Kuyda said.
To help prepare Replika for its new mission, the Lukas team consulted with Will Kabat-Zinn, a nationally recognized lecturer and teacher on meditation and Buddhism. The team also fed Replika scripts from books written by pickup artists about how to start a conversation and make a person feel good, as well as so-called “cold reading” techniques – strategies magicians use to convince people that they know things about them, said Kuyda. If a user is clearly down or distressed, Replika is programmed to recommend relaxation exercises. If a user turns toward suicidal thinking, as defined by key words and phrases, Replika directs them to professionals at crisis hotlines with a link or a phone number. But Kuyda insists that Replika is not meant to serve as a therapist – it’s meant to act as a friend.
The Chatbot Revolution
ELIZA, arguably the first chatbot ever built, was designed in the 1960s by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum as an AI research experiment. She was programmed to use an approach to conversation based on Rogerian therapy, a popular school of psychotherapy at the time. Rogerian therapists typically reframed the patient’s statements as questions using keywords. Even though conversations with ELIZA often took bizarre turns, and even when those conversing with ELIZA knew she was not human, many people developed emotional attachments to the chatbot – a development that shocked Weizenbaum. Their affection for the bot so disturbed him that he ended up killing the research project, and became a vocal opponent of advances in AI.
Weizenbaum, however, was seen as heretic in the engineering community, and his opposition didn’t slow the parade of AI-powered chatbots that came after ELIZA. Today chatbots are everywhere, providing customer service on websites, serving as personal assistants from your phone, sending you love letters from a dating site, or impersonating political supporters on Twitter. In 2014, a chatbot named Eugene became the first to pass a simple Turing test, an evaluation of a robot’s ability to convince a human judge that it is human.
As AI language processing has improved, chatbots have begun to perform more specialized tasks. For instance, a professor at George Tech recently built himself a chatbot teaching assistant, named Jill Watson. The bot answered questions in a student forum for his online class on AI, and many students were convinced she was human. Just a couple of months after Replika rolled out, a team of Standford psychologists and AI experts launched its most direct competition: Woebot, a robot that’s “ready to listen, 24/7.” Woebot’s offering is a bit more structured than Replika’s: Woebot offers cognitive behavioral therapy exercises, video links, mood trackers, and conversations that max out at 10 minutes.
Research suggests that people open up more easily to computers than humans, in part because they are less likely to fear judgement, stigma, or violations of privacy. But people also are more likely to divulge sensitive information if a human interviewer develops a rapport with them, through conversational and gestural techniques. These seemingly contradictory principles informed the 2011 creation of an AI system called Ellie, a chatbot with a human-like female avatar animated on a video screen. Researchers from the University of Southern California created Ellie for DARPA, the emerging technologies research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. Still in use today, Ellie is engineered to help doctors at military hospitals detect post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses in veterans returning from war, but is not meant to provide actual therapy, or replace a therapist. [to be continued]
Credit: Kristen C. French
References: Futurism, MIT, Eugenia Kuyda
Image Credit: replika.ai/Google images