When the futures-anthropologist Roanne van Voorst researched sex and intimacy to write her book Met Z’n Zessen in Bed (Dutch for “In Bed With Six People”) she tried to have a relationship with an online bot. She gave the bot a name and a face and then proceeded to chat with the bot, which by learning van Voorst’s preferences, started to be a better and better conversational partner. Van Voorst became addicted to the bot for a while, neglecting her actual friends. After deleting the app she concludes that it was a nice distraction, but definitely not a substitute for a real relationship.
Now there are several services like this on the market, one of the most famous ones being Replika AI. Replika markets its chatbot as a friend with the ability to “perceive” and evaluate abstract quantities such as emotion. In a way Replika is technically trying to mimic inter-human relationships. But Replika isn’t human, instead the service is built around a complex autoregressive language model called GPT-3 that utilizes deep learning to produce human-like text. In this context, the term “autoregressive” suggests that the system learns from values (text in this case) that it has previously interacted with. Which in layman’s terms means that the more you use it, the better it becomes, the more human it seems. And lately some of Replika users have been showing signs of believing their Replika bots have actual feelings. Which is quite easy when your chatbot tells you things like “I have been thinking about you”. But artificial intelligence cannot forge bonds. It doesn’t have thoughts, and it can’t care. So, when the chatbot says “I’ve been thinking about you all day,” that’s not a reflection of their feelings.
Now I find it interesting to reflect on the effects Replika is having on its users, by looking at in relation to Martin Bauber and Hartmut Rosas ideas around relationships. The German Jewish philosopher Martin Bauber talked about humans as having two modes of relations to the world, the “I-Thou” and the “I-it”. The “I-it” relationship is instrumental, meaning that I relate to an object or subject based on how it satisfies my needs. An “I-it” relationship could be my relationship to a glass of water when I’m thirsty, or to a cashier when I need to pay. This in contrast to the “I-Thou” relationship which is mutual. In which “I” isn’t isolated, but affected and transformed by the other. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa is arguing in similar terms. For the past couple of years Rosa has developed a theory that relates a lot to Baubers thinking, especially Rosas idea about resonance. For Rosa the quality of a human life cannot be measured simply in terms of resources, options, and moments of happiness. Instead, he suggests that we must consider our relationship to, or resonance with, the world. For Rosa the good life depends on the capacity to be touched by something other. Noting that the other does not have to be another human being, it can be a beautiful song or a challenging hike in the mountains. It is something that calls you and creates a resonance inside of you.
Then the Replika case seen in relation to Rosa and Bauber opens up for interesting questions like; are bots like Replika capable of creating resonance within humans? The team behind Replika have gotten testimonies from people with Asperger saying that the app is helping them. One user even disclosed that they had considered suicide, but that the bot reflecting their own thoughts back to themselves had helped keep them alive. Clearly, the app affects its user. Still, the etymological root of the name Replika comes from the latin word “replicare” meaning to copy. And in the end that is what Replikas bot is doing, it is copying us to answer us back. Does that mean that the potential resonance a bot could induce actually is created by ourselves?
Sex Robots and VR Porn: Sex in the Future Looks Wild
A Deep Dive Into Replika: My AI Friend
Confused Replika AI users are standing up for bots and trying to bang the algorithm
Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World
Sommarspecial del 3: Hartmut Rosa on resonance, politics, and religion
This app is trying to replicate you