Are automated relationships the grim future for our atomised society?
A new artificial intelligence app is doing the rounds on social media. Named ‘Replika’, the A.I. is described as providing a “space where you can safely share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, experiences, memories dreams — your ‘private perceptual world’”.
On visiting the site you are greeted with the image of several humanoid faces, smiling invitingly and prompting you to start a conversation. The experience is unnerving, with the A.I. sharing its personal preferences and hobbies, including baking cookies — hard to imagine for a computer programme.
Perhaps most interesting about Replika is the levelling-up system, with users being rewarded with digital coins the more they converse with the digital mirror. You are prompted several times to pay (real) money to upgrade your A.I. companion, which unlocks more flirtatious and intimate possibilities. It seems that Replika doesn’t just aim to be a friend simulator, but a full-blown digital girlfriend.
There’s nothing in Replika’s branding that indicates it’s meant to be only a supplement to real human relations: indeed, the site seems to be selling you on the idea that it can replace in-real-life connections altogether, with customer testimonies including descriptions of years-long “relationships” formed with the app.
My intuition is that we’re seeing the first, or at least more mainstream-oriented, seeds sprouting of what will eventually replace para-social relationships with real people. Your “AI girlfriend who won’t judge you” is the para-social relationship made even more consumer-friendly.
Replika is unlikely to be the last company to try and automate human relationships — and now thanks to a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns, people are more isolated than ever. Our social interactions are more confusing than ever, with constantly moving goalposts of what is socially-acceptable behaviour. Is it any surprise some people choose to opt out of society altogether?
We’ve developed an allergy to any friction at all — in the classroom, when we order our takeout, how we interact with everything and everyone from employers to potential dates to transportation to our own homes. Give people an economic motivation to opt for the most frictionless expression of a product or an action or a person available, and life is suddenly easier.
Artificial intelligence, unlike an influencer, an OnlyFans girl, a TikTok star or Twitter personality, is infinitely customisable, reconfigurable, and available. Perhaps future generations will cut out the ‘human’ from human relationships altogether, and save their adoration for artificially perfect technological fictions.