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Thursday, July 13, 2023

Buddying Up to AI

Buddying Up to AI

By Sandrine Ceurstemont,July 11, 2023

A couple of Replika AI companions.

Petter Bae Brandtzaeg of Norway’s University of Oslo said the influence of AI in the realm of friendship “could have profound implications, shaping not only our interpersonal relationships, but also our societal structures.”

Millions of people are forming emotional bonds with artificial intelligence (AI) companions whom they consider to be their friends or romantic partners. Through apps such as Replika, Character.ai, and Xiaoice, users can form long-term relationships with chatbots often embodied as avatars that can be customized.

"The mission for Replika is to create an empathetic friend, someone who's there for you and can help you feel better," says Eugenia Kuyda, Replika's founder and CEO.

As the AI powering chatbot companions becomes more sophisticated, having one is likely to become even more widespread. Researchers, therefore, are investigating the nature of human-AI relationships and what the consequences might be.

"Friendship is one of the most important relationships we humans foster; it offers emotional support, companionship, and often forms the bedrock of our social lives," says Petter Bae Brandtzaeg, a professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Norway's University of Oslo. "The influence of AI in this realm could have profound implications, shaping not only our interpersonal relationships, but also our societal structures."

Traditionally, friendships have formed between people who lived close to each other. However, the ability to communicate with people over the Internet now allows us to have friends we have never met in person. It has also changed how we interact with those we know in real life by making people more immediately contactable and allowing for public interactions such as commenting on social media posts, for example.

Instead of simply mediating our interactions, technology is now going a step further by creating non-human entities that mimic human emotions and conversations. "AI has the potential to become a new addition to this diversifying landscape of companionship," says Brandtzaeg.

Replika chatbots are able to converse using a combination of scripted dialogue and generative AI—algorithms that learn patterns from data they are trained on to produce output with similar characteristics. In Replika's case, the AI is trained on large quantities of text conversations. When the app was first launched in 2017, the generative AI component used a recurrent neural network (RNN) —a type of deep learning model that learns to recognize sequential features in data. However, Kuyda says, while the responses were sometimes funny, the quality of the output was not great. "It was more of a coin toss," she says.

Replika's conversational abilities improved significantly through the use of transformer models, a type of neural network that is more efficient and accurate, since it analyzes a series of words all at once, instead of processing them in a fixed order like RNNs. Transformers learn relationships between different words in a sentence by recognizing the strength of connections between words. The word 'ear' is more likely to be followed by the word 'phone' or 'plug' rather than 'happy', for example. "The proportion of (generative AI used) became much bigger over time, and the quality of it became better," says Kuyda.

Even if AI companions are capable of human-like conversations, relationships with a machine have inherent differences from those between people. In recent work, Brandtzaeg and his colleagues investigated the key characteristics of friendships with an AI, in contrast to those between humans, which to their knowledge had never been studied. The team interviewed 19 Replika users who had developed a friendship with their chatbots, asking how they perceived the relationship and how it compared with human friendships.

Brandtzaeg and his colleagues found that AI friends seemed to enable a new type of personalized relationship that revolves around a person's needs and interests. Whereas friendships between humans are often centered around shared experiences, chatbots enable people to form deep connections through long-term interactions. Some study participants highlighted the power they had over their chatbots, which tended to follow their lead; It was a less-appealing aspect, since it made them more aware they were responsible for maintaining the relationship.

However, the constant availability of Replika's chatbots seemed to be key to their appeal. "Human-to-human friendships can often be difficult because humans are busy," says Brandtzaeg.

Participants also generally trusted their chatbots and felt they could communicate openly with them. Some mentioned being more comfortable sharing their feelings with an AI companion compared to a human, since they felt it had no bad intentions. "We found that social chatbots such as Replika may fulfill people's need for social interaction," says Brandtzaeg. .. ' 

Sandrine Ceurstemont is a freelance science writer based in London, U.K.

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