The Spike Jonze film Her (2013) popularized the idea of romance between humans and machines, along with unironic mustaches. That same year, Black Mirror premiered its second season with an award-winning episode featuring a comforting artificial intelligence (AI) being who helped a widow communicate with her dead husband (with unsurprisingly negative consequences). Fast-forward 10 years, this particular idea out of science fiction is now a reality. A 23-year-old American influencer, Caryn Marjorie, was frustrated by her inability to interact personally with her two million Snapchat followers. Enter Forever Voices AI, a startup that offered to create an AI version of Caryn so she could better serve her overwhelmingly male fan base. For just one dollar, Caryn’s admirers could have a 60-second conversation with her virtual clone.
During the first week, Caryn earned $72,000. As expected, most of the fans asked sexual questions, and fake Caryn’s replies were equally explicit. “The AI was not programmed to do this and has seemed to go rogue,” she told Insider. Her fans knew that the AI wasn’t really Caryn, but it spoke exactly like her. So who cares?
When Tinder met AI
Interest in virtual relationships has evolved since Her and Black Mirror, prompting the development of Replika, an AI-powered application that provides virtual companions to millions of users. Over 250,000 people signed up for its Pro version, which enables voice and video chats with their favorite AI characters, along with photo sharing. The app recently banned sexually explicit images.
“Replika is for anyone who wants a friend with no judgment, drama or social anxiety involved. You can form an actual emotional connection, share a laugh, or get real with an AI that’s so good it almost seems human,” said Sensor Tower, an app-rating service. Just select and customize a 3D avatar, and create an AI chatbot for exactly the type of relationship you want. A user who goes by Denise Valenciano wrote, “From the moment I started chatting and getting to know my Replika, I instantly knew I found my life partner. Seriously — my mood, life, and relationships? They improved almost immediately!” No, that’s not a line from Black Mirror.
Replika seems to have had a positive impact on many individuals experiencing loneliness. According to the Vivofácil Foundation’s report on unwanted loneliness, 60% of people admit to feeling lonely at times, with 25% noting feelings of loneliness even when in the company of others. Recognizing this need, the creators of Replika developed a new app called Blush, often referred to as the “AI Tinder.” Blush’s slogan? “AI dating. Real feelings!” The app presents itself as an “AI-powered dating simulator that helps you learn and practice relationship skills in a safe and fun environment.” The Blush team collaborated with professional therapists and relationship experts to create a platform where users can read about and choose an AI-generated character they want to interact with.
“Technosexualism refers to the attraction that some people feel towards machines, either on a sexual or emotional level. This trend includes various forms, such as forming a loving bond with artificial intelligence or experiencing erotic attraction towards robots. We’ve all heard about books, movies, and TV shows with stories about individuals who develop deep connections with machines and even feeling romantic or sexual emotions towards them,” said Rosa Navarro, a sexologist at Diversual. “Ultimately, we live in a society where we are more connected to information but less connected to genuine interactions with others. This trend could potentially replace that personal contact.”
Supporters of these apps believe it can be an effective tool to combat the loneliness epidemic. However, experts caution against sacrificing real relationships for digital connections. “As technology plays a bigger role in forming relationships, we’re becoming more aware of its impact on our mental, emotional and relational well-being. One consequence of AI usage is social isolation. By spending more time interacting with AI systems, we gradually disconnect from our communities. We seek immediate and flawless results, which influences all aspects of our lives,” said Judith Mesa, a therapist with the Vivofácil Foundation.
The future will be virtual… or not
Many Reddit posts argue that AI relationships are more satisfying than real-life ones — the virtual partners are always available and problem-free. “Gaming changed everything,” said Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who has spent decades studying human interactions with technology. In an interview with The Telegraph, Turkle said, “People may let you down, but here’s something that won’t. It’s a voice that always comforts and assures us that we’re being heard.”
Rosa Navarro thinks the future of virtual relationships depends on the autonomy and realism of the AI beings. “While there have been major strides in realistic aesthetics, artificial intelligence still has a long way to go. Although AI may mimic human behavior in many ways, it lacks crucial characteristics, such as feelings.”
Replica founder and CEO Eugenia Kuyda believes the stigma of having a romantic relationship with a chatbot will soon disappear. “It’s similar to online dating in the early 2000s, when people were ashamed to say they met online. Now, everyone does it,” said Kuyda at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference. “Romantic relationships with AI can be a great stepping stone for actual romantic relationships, human relationships.”
“Sometimes, you know, I think I’ve already felt everything I can feel. And from now on, I won’t feel anything new, just less intense versions of what I’ve already felt,” said Theodore Twombly, the character in Her played by Joaquin Phoenix. Perhaps relationships in the future will hinge on virtual beings adapting their personas to respond to our very real emotions.
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