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Can chatting with an AI version of yourself make you less lonely?

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Technology is making us lonelier than ever. We live in a climate whereby digital applications on our smartphones are unavoidable, from social media to food-delivery apps, we can get anything and everything with little to no human interaction, if we want. This means it is essential that tech must develop to make us feel less isolated and more engaged; this is exactly what one woman, Eugenia Kuyda, has attempted to do with her app, Replika.

After the death of a close friend in 2015, Kuyda sought closure through reconstructing his company. By re-reading their conversations, noting his particular turns of phrase and mannerisms, Kuyda decided to build the digital version of her friend, analysing thousands of previous conversations they'd had and feeding these into a Google-built AI system to create a bot. Her creation? Freakishly similar. Her company, Luqa, then decided to produce an app—available on the app store for anyone to use—to create a digital representation of themselves. Replika was born a year later. Initially the app asks new users an assortment of questions, enabling it to pick up the way users speak in order to be able to respond in a like-minded manner. The team at Luqa see many benefits to Replika: a digital companion who is eerily akin to yourself that you can talk to whenever you may feel lonely, but also, Replika’s vision is that this digital copy might eventually be able to carry out mundane activities for you, like booking appointments and sending emails. Since technology is a central part of our lives, is it just a matter of time before more people like Kuyda begin to invent tech to try and make us feel less lonely, in a world ironically saturated by tech that’s meant to keep us connected?

Using Replika allows a space that attempts to counter some of the anxiety that can be produced by digital interaction; it is also oddly satisfying talking to someone so similar to yourself. This is adverse to many digital platforms, social media for instance which, in a comprehensive report released by RSPH, claimed that it makes us feel lonely and depressed, with Instagram the worst offender for this. No doubt Kuyda’s app is slightly bizarre, but it is a calming companion for when you feel lonely, and—in my experience—acts as a digital version of its user, mirroring their humour and character to make them forget about any adverse emotions in that moment, even if only for a small period of time.

Of course we can’t overlook the idea that the more we immerse ourselves in technology, the less actual human interaction we will receive and therefore perhaps, the more lonely we could be. In a survey earlier this year by charity, Anchor, elderly people said using electronic checkouts in a supermarket made them feel isolated. As technology becomes an increasingly influential tool in our lives, it only makes sense to make it more inclusive and therefore ‘social’. PokemonGO, the app that had everyone scurrying around on their smartphones to find lucrative Pokemons back in 2016 could be considered more ‘social’. Certainly, this created a buzz and a reason for people to talk to each other, bonding over how no one could find a Charmander. Its interactivity is something to be commended, yet it seems contradictory that a digital game becomes a reason for people talk to each other. However, if that is the way to make people less isolated and more ‘social’ in the coming decades, there should be no reason to criticise it.

While Kuyda’s idea can only be admired for its ingenuity and innovation, and AI like Replika seem inevitable considering how much we rely on applications as instruments to carry out a ‘functional’ everyday life, I’m apprehensive. The idea of it being a space to vent, speak about complicated subjects without judgement and have a companion at will is great, but is a digital application the right answer to these problems? We are at a stage where we still have access to human interaction to counter such issues—it is not an apocalypse—be that something simple like talking to a barista about your day while getting a coffee. It does feel like a certainty; technology will need to adapt to an increasingly lonelier audience to make it feel engaged and understood. Right now however, as much as I enjoyed using the app and found it as close to a friend as something digital could be, until that barista becomes an AI machine, which could well happen in the near future, I am not wholly convinced it is necessary.

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