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Love in the time of AI
Jul 14, 2023

Love in the time of AI

Millions of people are forming relationships with artificial intelligence chatbots. Marco Dehnert of Arizona State University says users are seeking friendship, late-night conversation or romance. He expects social acceptance of those relationships to grow.

This month, “Marketplace Tech” is looking back at a movie that came out 10 years ago, but feels very current. Spoke Jonze’s 2013 film “Her” depicts a lonely divorced man played by Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with something like an artificial intelligence chatbot voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Marco Dehnert, a doctoral candidate in communications at Arizona State University, about his research on relationships between humans and machines. Dehnert said these relationships are becoming more common as AI advances.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Marco Dehnert: Let’s start off with apps and chatbots. There’s a very famous example called Replika, and it’s basically just an app you download on your smartphone and you can text with a bot. Replika is meant to replicate yourself, but usually users portray her as a woman. She can be your girlfriend, your sexual partner, your romantic partner, or some people use the app as a private diary if they want to be able to say things and keep things to themselves. For others, Replika is just someone to chat with late at night or maybe have a romantic engagement that builds up over the course of months or even years. It’s been really interesting, especially in the case of Replika.

Meghan McCarty Carino: Do you have a sense of whether people are engaging with this technology in the same way they engage with a human partner? Is there knowledge that this is a synthetic technology that doesn’t have feelings?

Dehnert: That’s a really common question. In most cases, what I see when I speak to users or read other research is that people are quite aware that the chatbot is not a human person, and they don’t miss the human component. That’s actually why they’re turning to these technologies, because they might not want to engage with a human or because human conversation partners are asleep at 3 a.m. and they want to talk to someone who’s available. So, they’re not necessarily delusional and they know it’s not a human person. They’re often just looking for something else or someone else to talk to.

McCarty Carino: The question that always comes up with these kinds of relationships is, are they healthy?

Dehnert: Yes, it’s a good question. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people were saying technology allows us to connect with people across the world and that allows us to not be so lonely. Now, people are making a comparison with those types of technologies and are worried about what happens if we only turn to technology and only turn to chatbots. Are we going to be sitting in our rooms isolated and alone while talking to 10 chatbots at the same time?

I think there’s a balance we need to strike as users and researchers and designers building those systems to figure out what actually is healthy. Maybe it is better to have some form of conversation, some form of relationship, even if it’s with an AI girlfriend or something similar, than to have no one to talk to. Because we are seeing lots of people reporting that they’re lonely and that they have less than one friend.

McCarty Carino: It seems like a lot of negative characterizations come up when we start thinking about substituting chatbots for real, in-person relationships. But is there evidence that is actually happening?

Dehnert: I think it could be happening for a minority of users. We have those people who are called early adopters, and they are probably doing this a lot. But I think for the vast majority of people, this will just be another type of relationship that we’ll have in the social world around us. So, I don’t think that this will be the type of relationship where everyone in five, 10 or 20 years will only have those types of relationships. Instead, I think it will grow over the course of the next few years and so will the social acceptance of those relationships. But I hardly believe those will replace existing human relationships in the long run for the vast majority of people.

McCarty Carino: Does there seem to be a fair amount of stigma around this kind of activity?

Dehnert: Yeah, I would even go further and say it’s probably a big amount of stigma. People say that only someone who is not successful with humans would turn to this or that users of this technology are “relational losers.” Because why would they turn to technology if they are successful in life? But what I’m seeing and what other researchers are also seeing is that actually people across society are using this technology, regardless of their job, social connections or friendships. It’s a much more diverse population than this stigma suggests. That’s for sure.

McCarty Carino: Replika ran into some data privacy issues in Italy earlier this year that caused some changes to be made to the system that, judging by some comments out on the internet, seem to have been pretty devastating for some users.

Dehnert: Absolutely. Imagine you’ve been chatting with this entity for months or years and all of a sudden, basically overnight, it doesn’t remember the key moments of that relationship. That is really something significant that’s been taken away from you. And it’s a big problem, right? Because it’s not just a relationship between the Replika partner and the human user. There’s also a third party in the relationship, which is the company behind it. There’s lots of things going on with legislation and regulation, proprietary algorithms, data protection and protecting minors. That’s basically what led to Replika shutting off some of those features because the government of Italy asked the company to enhance the protection of minors and data protection. Replika’s parent company, Luka, said we can’t do that in the timeframe given, so we have to shut those features off, and that’s clearly something we don’t see with human-to-human relationships. You can’t just shut them off.

McCarty Carino: We’ve been looking back at the movie “Her,” which came out 10 years ago, and obviously that film deals with a lot of what we are talking about. What do you make of that movie in light of how this technology has developed in, in seemingly a very similar way?

Dehnert: It’s kind of the most amazing case for a science fiction piece, right? If all of the predictions turn out to be happening a few years later, that’s really exciting.

I always think back to the first part of the movie where Theodore, the main character, is writing personal notes for other people, and I think that’s an interesting symbol for how relationships have already changed. In the movie, people are outsourcing the intimate labor of saying thank you to a service agency. That might be kind of indicative of what we’re moving towards, where we’re already outsourcing many parts of our relationships to other kinds of entities that we pay for.   

Another thing that really strikes a chord with me is towards the end of the movie, when Theodore realizes that Samantha, his AI assistant who’s also his lover and partner, has been in relationships with something like 8,000 other people. It’s a really heartbreaking moment for Theodore because he operated under the assumption that their relationship was an exclusive or unique experience for him. And that didn’t turn out to be true.

McCarty Carino: Right? It seems like engaging in a relationship from a human perspective with technology is always going to be rife with pitfalls.  

Dehnert: I guess so. It also goes to show what types of understandings or assumptions people have about romantic relationships. Relationships are changing in their own right. The way people are relating to other people is changing, and technology is changing those types of relationships. The question is not so much whether that is a good or a bad development. Instead, the question is mostly just about how we are reacting to this development and what is it doing to people? And we just don’t know enough just yet to say this is only bad or only good for human relationships. I think that usually in these types of situations, the truth is somewhere in between.

Replika isn’t the only AI chatbot service, though it’s one of the better-known examples. There’s a whole universe of what are often called virtual girlfriend apps, including CarynAI. That’s a voice chatbot clone of a real-life Snapchat influencer named Caryn Marjorie.

In a tweet, Marjorie said she “worked with the world’s leading psychologists to seamlessly add [cognitive behavioral therapy] within chats” to help cure loneliness.

Replika’s parent company, Luka, also recently released a new app called Blush, made specifically for virtual dating and sex. The makers of the app say it can help users build relationship and intimacy skills that will help them in real life. Luka CEO Eugenia Kuyda said relationships with AI could soon become normalized, similar to the transformation in attitudes around online dating.

If you want to read more about AI, romance and the movie “Her,” check out Marketplace’s “Econ Extra Credit” newsletter, which comes out every Monday. “Marketplace Tech” is taking over the newsletter all month and publishing corresponding episodes that examine “Her” and how its themes resonate in the age of AI.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer