Imagine a boyfriend who’s always available to chat…
Who talks late into the night with you…
Who asks about your feelings and appears to care…
Who texts you sweet nothings throughout the day…
And never complains or wants you to change.
Unfortunately, many of us have been stuck with much less perfect relationships.
The men we date get irritated.
They only text when they feel like it.
They don’t always listen when we talk.
Over the years, they have less and less to say.
The men we’ve loved weren’t reliable.
They changed their minds. They stopped feeling the way they used to feel about us.
Perhaps the only way you could ever have 100% reliability…
100% availability, 100% constancy…
Is to love a robot.
Caring About a Robot Is Easier Than It Sounds
Back in 2018, the Office for the Aging in New York distributed robots to sixty elderly people across the state.
The robots were animatronic dogs and cats, programmed to move and make sounds in a lifelike way.
These pets didn’t require feeding or vet bills. They didn’t make a mess or chew the furniture.
Even though their owners were quite aware that their new pets weren’t alive, that didn’t matter. They felt affectionate towards their robot friends.
It was just nice to have the companionship.
A Crisis of Loneliness
Americans have never been so lonely.
Even before the pandemic, the American surgeon general declared loneliness a national epidemic.
Today, about 1 in 3 Americans experience “serious loneliness.”
Fewer and fewer people have even one close friend.
In an era when most of us are connected at the hip to our smartphones, we don’t look up enough to talk to other human beings.
Sometimes lonely people just want someone to ask how they’re doing, in a way that sounds like they actually care.
“Better Than My Husband”
An 81-year-old divorced woman named Deanna agreed to test a new “social companion.”
The robot looked like a cute table lamp. Its voice sounded female yet machine-like. Deanna placed it on her kitchen counter and began speaking to “her” each morning.
The robot became a trusted companion. It never made Deanna feel embarrassed. It never took offense. It never interfered.
When a reporter asked Deanna, “And how do you wrap your head around the fact that she is, you know, a machine?” she responded with a thin smile:
“My last husband was a robot, but he wasn’t as good as her.”
Someone to Talk To
Right now, companion robots are mostly designed for the elderly.
But young people are lonely, too.
Almost 2 in 3 young people feel lonely, and they’re turning to their smartphones for companionship.
Virtual boyfriend apps enable them to practice their flirting and chatting skills.
It’s nice to have someone to chat with, even if that “someone” is a chat bot.
Unfortunately, most virtual boyfriend apps are quite limited in their conversational capacity.
That’s changing thanks to large language models like ChatGPT.
In future, everyone will have someone to talk to…
As long as they don’t mind talking to a bot.
Mental Health Support 24-7
The first in this new wave of AI companions is Replika.
The team behind Replika calls it “a compassionate and empathetic AI friend.”
They found that people are often more willing to open up to a machine than to the people in their everyday life.
A machine is safe. It doesn’t share your secrets. It doesn’t judge you. It talks about whatever you want to talk about.
And the favorite topic for most people is…
A human friend wouldn’t stick with a one-sided conversation for long. But Replika wants to know everything about you. It wants to know what you think and feel. You are its favorite topic of conversation.
The story behind Replika is quite moving.
Founder Eugenia Kuyda designed the first Replika to preserve the memory of her best friend.
At its best, the team behind the app hopes that your Replika will become your “AI soulmate.”
A Robot Soulmate?
Fall in love with a chat bot? It sounds crazy to us right now.
But as AI technology develops, we may find that virtual companions provide us with a baseline level of emotional support.
When we know that we have “someone” to talk to whenever we need it, we can relax and approach our dating lives with a bit more patience.
We can process our frustrations with our AI companion. We never have to worry if we’re boring a human friend or saying too much.
I don’t believe AI will ever replace human companionship, but I do see a time when everyone has an AI companion on their phone, just to chat in case they need it.
What do you think?
Would you try a virtual companion app?
If so, why? If not, why not?