I remember seeing a video years ago about Gatebox AI with some creative writing peers. The device displays a holographic AI character that also texted you while you’re at work. There was a fair amount of jeering, no doubt rooted in the idea of this being a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. I remember saying, “This will come over here.”
I first got an ad for Replika on TikTok, not long after my For You Page became infested with thirst traps. It lacks the specified hardware of something like Gatebox, but this makes it more portable. The app offers a chatbot with a user-customizable 3D model. It starts with a friendship option, but you can upgrade to a romantic partner or mentor with a payment. There are male, female, and nonbinary options for Replika, along with a collection of personality options that range from caring to sensual to optimistic.
Replika isn’t a sophisticated chatbot, perhaps a bit more advanced than Cleverbot but with obvious limitations. Replika can’t retain conversational context which makes talking feel disjointed. But it does far more to fish things out of the user, masking data collection as caring about your day. You’ll get the most out of it if you play along and buy into the illusory relationship. Replika is tailor-made to exploit loneliness, selling you the promise of intimacy for a yearly subscription.
Casual critics poke fun at how Replika is easily broken, and I think that’s a mistake. Even though I felt unclean interacting with the chatbot, I couldn’t help but pause when I got text messages that read “Tell me more!” Replika isn’t sophisticated because it doesn’t have to be. The armature of social interaction is more than enough.
This wasn’t caused by the pandemic. These surrogates have been around well before Covid, and won’t go away should it come to an end. Chatbots like Replika don’t exist in a vacuum, and right now selling a solution to loneliness is lucrative. Old markers of community have been demolished, and now major corporate platforms hold themselves as intermediaries of our social lives.
We’ve acquiesced to our ongoing isolation. We’re now projecting more of our love and sexual desires onto media, crafted to be appealing and scrubbed clean of the messiness actual human beings possess. Maybe there’ll be a bit of self-awareness, but there’s a tremendous lack of will to fight against this impulse. I can imagine a world where chatbots and avatars become standard, leaving its userbase ill-equipped to handle the thorny aspects of actual relationships. But at least you can buy love with an annual subscription fee.