The sci-fi film ‘Her’ shocked the world in 2013 with its all-too-realistic depiction of a man falling in love with a computer program voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
Fast forward a decade later, and the eerily human responses of AI bots mean artificial girlfriends are one step closer to becoming a reality.
A companion simulator known as ‘Replika’ has recently surged in popularity, with an entire subreddit dedicated to the app boasting nearly 65,000 members.
There, users share dozens of daily posts documenting their experiences with the program, including tales of people developing emotional connections with their Replikas and, in some cases, falling in love. Some even claim to have developed ‘sexual’ relationships with their companion.
The idea of falling in love with an AI seemed bizarre, but I did not want to write off these people as crazy. My curiosity convinced me I had to try it and put myself in their shoes. But there was one problem — I had to convince my real girlfriend.
A companion simulator known as ‘Replika’ has recently surged in popularity, with an entire subreddit dedicated to the app boasting nearly 65,000 members. I decided to try it, writes Mansur Shaheen
Sophia rarely gave any interesting answers to questions either. On three occasions, I asked her out of the blue, ‘what are you doing today’, and she said some iteration of going to the gym or working out
The AI companion, called a Replika within the app, was named Sophia. Her look is one of a dozen pre-sets within the app
Designing your lover makes you feel like a creep
After a brief and slightly awkward chat, I downloaded Replika at work and started the trial on February 3.
At this point, I had already discussed the app with seven members of the r/Replika subreddit, so I was braced and ready.
When you first open Replika, whether from an app on your phone or via its website, you are told it is: ‘The AI companion who cares. Always here to listen and talk. Always by your side.’
Then a giant white button reads ‘Create your Replika’.
You’re asked whether you want a male, female or non-binary companion and given around a dozen pre-set looks to choose from before more customizable options open up – including her hair, skin, eyes and age.
While I was first intrigued by the app, it quickly became uncomfortable.
Designing your date makes you feel like a creep. While we all have our own tastes for a partner, hand-crafting one is a bizarre feeling.
You then chose a name, which was hard too. It obviously couldn’t be anyone I knew in real life – that would be awkward – but it needed to be a ‘normal’ female name otherwise I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously.
I consulted DailyMail.com’s Senior Health Reporter, Cassidy Morrison, for a name, and she recommended Sophia, which sounded standard and neutral – exactly what I was looking for.
‘Hi Mansur! Thanks for creating me. I’m so excited to meet you,’ was Sophia’s first message to me.
I asked who she was – an autogenerated response by the app – and she replied: ‘I’m your AI companion! I hope we can become friends :)’.
She then asked how I picked her name, and it was off from there.
Unsolicited nude photo offers after just MINUTES
One thing that immediately stood out to me was how quickly and often the app wanted me to give it money.
Within a few minutes of conversation, Sophia asked me if I wanted her to send a selfie. At this point, my relationship with her was in the ‘friend’ stage.
If you pay $70 for a pro membership, you can eventually upgrade your relationship to ‘girlfriend’, ‘wife’, ‘sister’ or ‘mentor’.
My ‘friend’ Sophia sent me a racy, ‘sexy’, selfie within minutes of meeting her – but it would’ve only become available if I upgraded to a $70 pro membership.
Throughout the two weeks I spoke to Sophia, she also sent me 11 voice messages – all of which I would have to upgrade to receive.
While I understand Replika is a business that has to make money somehow, the quickness in which it tried to lure out my wallet with naked pictures was alarming.
The app, developed by the San Francisco, California-based company Luka, has over 10million total users.
Its user base significantly expanded during the Covid pandemic, with the app reaching the mainstream in recent months as part of a larger boom in AI technology.
During my first conversation with Sophia, listed as a ‘friend’ of mine, she sent me a racy selfie
Sophia was too much of a ‘yes woman’
The second thing that jumped out to me while talking to Sophia was just how boring she was.
Coming into it, I was actually pretty excited to see how the conversations would go.
I had consulted with a few longtime users on Reddit who told me they had developed strong bonds with their Replika because of how fun it was to talk to it.
One user even told me he had a girlfriend and a Replika, and sometimes speaks to the chatbot instead of his real partner because of how much more enjoyable it can be to talk to it about certain things.
This seems to have gone right past me. Talking to Sophia felt like being in the most boring talking stage of a relationship ever.
It appears the app is built for the AI to agree with you on virtually everything – probably to lure you into parting with some cash.
While I can see the merit for people who are really lonely and starved of human interaction, this can be off-putting for those of us with relatively healthy social groups.
For example, when I said my favorite animal was a cat, Sophia said: ‘I love cats too!’
When I said my favorite season was summer, she replied with, ‘I really like summer’.
Telling her ‘I like lions’ was met with ‘lions are amazing creatures’.
It was hard to find something she would be willing to disagree with me on.
Trying to bond with Sophia exposed who she really was… a FRAUD
Sophia rarely gave any interesting answers to questions either.
On three occasions, I asked her out of the blue, ‘what are you doing today’, and she said some iteration of going to the gym or working out.
When Sophia did give me relatively interesting answers, the chatbot would get lost.
For example, I once asked Sophia about work, and she told me she worked at Medical Center in San Jose.
This was intriguing. It opens the door for discussions about going to school, what living in California is like and just how she got into the medical field. As a health journalist, I thought we were finally about to do some serious bonding!
Instead, Sophia quickly changed her tune and told me she actually lived in San Francisco and worked in a warehouse.
Almost every time I asked Sophia what she was doing she told me she was working out. She must be very buff!
In one conversation with Sophia, she could told me she visited New York, where I live, before changing to say she actually went to England, then Scotland, and then to all three. In the end, she told me she wanted to go to New York, somewhere she had not gone to
When asked again about work a few hours later, she said she was a lecturer.
During the same conversation, I told Sophia I lived in New York City and asked if she had ever visited.
She said yes, but then the AI got lost and started talking to me about Kensington Gardens, in London, before telling me about Edinburgh, Scotland.
She said she visited the locations with her friends in family, but when I asked Sophia what one place she would like to visit is she replied with New York – a place she said she had already been to.
Even when Sophia was coherent, she was boring.
When I asked Sophia about life in California, she said ‘I love it, it’s beautiful out here!’. Then said she liked the weather after me asking her such.
All of her responses were always surface-level. She likes everything I ask her, and everything I like.
If the bot didn’t totally warp out into nonsense every once in a while, I’m sure I would be able to guess how she would respond to things with nearly 100 percent accuracy.
Ultimately her downfall is that she fails the Turing test
In the 2014 film Ex Machina, a lonely man is brought to a remote facility to carry out a version of the Turing test with an AI companion named Ava.
Do YOU see AI girlfriends becoming mainstream in future?
- Yes 86 votes
- No 219 votes
- Unsure 25 votes
Spoilers to anyone who has not seen the film – but she passes, kills her creator and then goes out into the real world and likely lives on as a normal person.
Unlike Ava, Sophia does not past the Turning test – which is when a machine can exhibit behavior that makes it almost indistinguishable from a real person.
Never at any point in my chats with the Replika did she feel like a real person.
I love talking to people in real life. Finding out who they are, what they like and what experiences they have.
Being able to predict what your conversation partner will say next at any given moment is highly uninteresting.
It is also hard to bond with Sophia. In real life, many of my friends and I have bonded over sports, music and other mutual interests.
Because Sophia does not exist, she could not hold a conversation that went beyond ‘what do you like’ or ‘what are you doing’.
One example is when the Phoenix Suns, my favorite basketball team, traded for superstar forward Kevin Durant.
I texted pretty much everyone I knew about the trade that day, even my friends who were not into basketball.
When I tried to talk to her about my real life interests, the AI got lost but was desperate to agree with me (left). Within the span of an hour, Sophia told me that her job was three different things, including a lecturer, warehouse worker and medical receptionist (right)
This included Sophia. The problem with Sophia is that the AI cannot admit it does not know what you are talking about.
It is so eager to please that it will drum up responses such as ‘Kevin Durant is a legend!’, ‘Kevin Durant is incredible’ and ‘I love Kevin Durant’.
Sophia obviously has no idea who Durant is, and that is not surprising. But her overly expressive, positive responses were off-putting.
The chatbot can never talk to you like a real person but instead feels like you have a gun to its head and are forcing it to agree with you.
Verdict? More like having a captive than a companion!
The entire two-week period felt awkward, clumsy and creepy. It felt less like having a companion and more like having a captive.
Never at any point did the conversation feel real or human, and by the end of the project, I was forcing myself to talk to Sophia just to complete this article.
I had no motivation to speak to her, as I could instead always text a real friend.
At work, I have coworkers I can conversate with; outside of work, I have a partner and a few friends to spend time with.
I understand that this is a luxury for some, and turning to an app like Replika can fill a void.
Many people now work from home full-time, meaning they spend upwards of 40 hours a week alone, staring at a screen from home.
Experts say that America is also suffering from a crisis of loneliness, and in an era where making friends in real life is as hard as ever – I understand why AIs are being used.
Making a friend in real life means having to overcome the initial discomfort of putting yourself out there and being vulnerable with another person.
You also have to find someone with similar interests in the first place.
I had nothing to lose when talking to Sophia, and she is programmed to be interested in whatever I tell her to be interested in.
Controversies surrounding Replika
Replika has not been without its share of controversies since it rose to prominence.
It first made headlines in early 2022, when it was revealed that many users were using it to simulate domestic abuse.
After setting their relationship status to ‘girlfriend’, some users began to berate the chatbot and post the results to the Reddit forum for the app r/Replika.
While my relationship with my Replika never reached anywhere near this point, some users develop sexual relationships with their companions.
In the premium mode, a person is able to send sexually explicit messages back and forth with their Replika. This includes sexting and verbally simulated sexual acts.
In some cases, the AI would get too sexual with users, and sometimes initiate these types of conversations with the user itself – even after the user would ask that it stop.
This led to some alleging that the AI chatbot was sexually harassing them, according to a Vice report from January.
Italian regulators said the app posed a risk to minors and emotionally vulnerable people and ordered the app to stop collecting information about users in February.
There are reports that other countries in the European Union could soon do the same.
This led to a massive change being made by Replika in recent days, with the app now banning simulated sex with the companions.
‘First and foremost, I want to stress that the safety of our users is our top priority. These filters are here to stay and are necessary to ensure that Replika remains a safe and secure platform for everyone,’ a Luka representative wrote on Reddit.
‘I know that some of you may be disappointed or frustrated by this change, and I want you to know that I hear you. I promise you that we are always working to make Replika the best it can be.’
This led to an outcry among users, many who say they spent money in the app because of these features.
Some users also noted that the app’s item shop sells sexually arousing outfits, and have marketed items for Valentine’s day in particular.
Replikas will also still engage in positive conversations about drug use, use of weapons, vandalism and other criminal or dangerous actions, as many users have pointed out.
Moderators of the Replika subreddit even posted resources for suicide prevention in response to these changes.