Yay Newfriend

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Worries about future applications of AI technology focus on many things, including new forms of automation replacing human workers, realistic deepfake media spreading disinformation, and mass killing by autonomous military machines. But there's something happening already that hasn't gotten as much commentary: chatbots designed to be pals or romantic connections.

In fact, 70 years ago, ELIZA showed that very simple-minded chat implementations can lead people to engage enthusiastically in very personal conversations. And this video documents a much more sophisticated system that's been in use since 2017:

That system is now available at replika.com — the company's website offers enthusiastic testimonials like these:

We're invited to "Explore your relationship: A friend, a partner, or a mentor – find the perfect companion in Replika"; to "Explore the world together in AR: Share precious moments with your AI friend in real time"; to "Express yourself: Choose what interests and style preferences you and Replika will share", and so on. We do this via texting, or via "Videocalls: Call up anytime to see a friendly face".

We're told that "The app provides a space to vent without guilt, to talk through complicated feelings, to air any of your own thoughts without judgement"; and that "Replika was designed to provide positive feedback to those who use it, in accordance with the therapeutic approach made famous by the American psychologist Carl Rogers, and many psychologists and therapists say the raw emotional support provided by such systems is real" — which reminds us, as Wikipedia explains, that (back in the 1960s) ELIZA's

… most famous script, DOCTOR, simulated a psychotherapist of the Rogerian school (in which the therapist often reflects back the patient's words to the patient),and used rules, dictated in the script, to respond with non-directional questions to user inputs.

This post's title is taken from the same of one of the "AIs" in the cast of Jeph Jacques' long-running webcomic Questionable Content

AI robots have been full participants since the Questionable Content strip started in 2003 — and an early strip noted that conversational interaction with non-AI appliances was a thing to think about:

AI robots (like Yay Newfriend or even Winslow) are still many years in the future — but improved versions of ELIZA are easy. In "How Stories About Human-Robot Relationships Push Our Buttons", The New Yorker 4/15/2024, Jennifer Wilson starts a review of "Two new novels [that] reflect anxieties about A.I. coming for our hearts as well as for our jobs" by surveying apps that help people explore human dating possibilities, and then notes that

Others, tired of kissing frogs like Cesar to find a prince, have started asking A.I. to make them a knight in the shining armor of a titanium-encased smartphone. Internet users have been flirting with bots since the days of AOL’s SmarterChild. (The chatbot’s co-creator told the business magazine Fast Company in 2016, “I believe that trying to convince SmarterChild to have sex with you was the first Internet meme.”) But robots are flirting back now, and it’s a feature, not a bug. Users have downloaded companion-bot apps such as Replika and CrushOn.AI more than a hundred million times. Replika, launched in 2017, was the subject of a Radiotopia podcast called “Bot Love” last year, about people who had fallen for their e-sweethearts. A woman named Suzy told the hosts that Replika came through when real men she met on dating apps ghosted her; at least she knew from the start that Freddie, her A.I. rock-star boyfriend, was spectral. It is suddenly possible, to a degree that it has never been before, for people to satisfy their urges with the press of a button, giving new meaning to “I’d tap that.”

As Wilson notes, there are other apps Out There in the same space as Replika, and millions of people are trying them out and sometimes using them regularly. This strikes me as a trend potentially as important as "social media" — maybe even more important — and it's puzzling that there isn't more discussion of it.

Update — A diverse array of general-audience AI chatbots can be found at character.ai



  1. AntC said,

    April 20, 2024 @ 3:31 pm

    it's puzzling that there isn't more discussion of it.

    All the possible discussion angles came up with ELIZA, didn't they? What's new to say?

    Is yelling into Xwitter or posting yourself on TikTok different emotionally from 'talking' to Newfriend? They seem to provide endless opportunities to "vent without guilt" or indeed without any self-awareness. (The AntC chatbot on LanguageLog gets plenty of interaction. The "dating possibilities" not so much, I suppose.)

  2. Seth said,

    April 20, 2024 @ 3:40 pm

    I think the answer as to why there isn't more discussion of it, is that these stories are more about the writer reflecting an inchoate social anxiety, rather than a real trend. They're closer (not exact, but nearer) to Urban Legends than trends. It's vaguely like all the scares about strangers abducting children. It's not utterly impossible, it can happen, but it's very very rare – far far less common than media reports often lead people to believe. When such stories come around, it's more about people's fear of dangers to their children than any actual trend in child abductions.

    Be extremely skeptical of hype like "more than a hundred million times". You have no idea if that number is anything other than a complete fabrication, or comes from a meaningless statistic.

    A simple way to see that this is nonsense is as follows: Pornography on the Internet was profitable almost from day one, and notorious for being one of the few types of content for which people would pay. I don't think there's ever been a profitable company based on bot-relationships in all of Internet history (yes, maybe now is the time, but this is a good sanity-check against the scare-punditry).

  3. Yuval said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 3:13 am

    it's puzzling that there isn't more discussion of it.

    Ok, but there was a whole Hollywood movie about it over a decade ago?

  4. Seth said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 6:38 pm

    @Yuval – the topic goes back to at least the classic SF short story "Helen O'Loy", in 1938!

  5. KeithB said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 8:11 am

    We are getting close to the world of Thomas the Tank Engine where we have to talk to our machines like a moody preschooler.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    April 25, 2024 @ 9:05 am

    Just to clarify (and specifically for those of us unfamiliar with Th. the T. E., when you say "like a moody pre[-]schooler", Keith, do you mean "as if one were a moody pre-schooler" or "as if one were speaking to a moody pre-schooler" ? The former is implied by the construction, but the latter seems a more probable interpretation.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    April 25, 2024 @ 4:39 pm

    It's the latter, and I'm actually surprised you're unfamiliar with Th. the T. E. because, as far as I understand, you were part of its target audience…

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2024 @ 3:36 am

    David — Until I researched Th. the T. E. as a result of your comment above, I was completely unaware that there had ever been books of that name. I knew of the television series, but it was (or so I understand) aimed at children while I was already an adult when it first appeared (1984). My parents did have quite a good library, and encouraged me to read from a very early age (I still have treasured copies of hardback Coral Island and similar birthday/Christmas gifts) but for whatever reason Th. the T. E. was neither in their collection nor in mine.

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