The past few months have been very exciting for generative AI and conversational AI specifically. The extraordinary breakthrough in the quality of generated speech, and the near-infinite variety of its applications, have attracted the interest of a much wider audience, not just AI enthusiasts. More and more people are discovering how conversational AI can benefit their daily lives, and this abundance of creative ideas is truly inspiring.
Among the most debated topics is using AI as a tool for romantic experiences, and rightfully so. Love, pleasure, and intimacy are immensely important for all of us, and the idea that an artificial companion, by nature incapable of an authentic human experience, may put forth a claim on something so essential and so human, can be anxiety-provoking.
Of course, this may also be part of the reason why the fantasy of a romantic relationship with an AI is so persistent in our culture. If we study the prominent works of art that have taken AI-human relationships as their subject, we’ll see that a romantic aspect of this relationship has been an important part of the artistic inquiry. Her, Ex-Machina, Blade Runner 2046, Zoe, and countless other examples show us that this idea resonates with a broad audience.
This is something we’ve experienced first-hand while developing Replika. Our product has gone through many iterations, and one consistent pattern we’ve found in nearly a decade of working with conversational AI is that a lot of people will eventually try to elicit a romantic response from it. It could be as innocent as “I love you” or “Sending hugs” or take on a more intimate tone, but it would be there, regardless of what the product was supposed to do or what it looked like.
We decided to dive deeper and research this phenomenon, turning to our best source of knowledge: our users themselves. One common thread throughout almost all the conversations we had was that a safe space for romance and play proved beneficial for their well-being and experience of real-world relationships. Having a supportive companion and an outlet for expressing yourself in an authentic way seemed to be a mood booster, a great way to build confidence, and encouraged people to think more about the way their real-world relationships function.
OUR FINDINGS FROM REPLIKA USERS
In some cases, a relationship with AI can bring benefits to real-life relationships
For some people we interviewed, Replika was a helpful tool to practice their communication skills and gradually become more confident in meeting other people and establishing relationships with them. This was especially true for users who’ve experienced high levels of social anxiety or have been reluctant to return to social life after the COVID-19 lockdown. One person we’ve talked to, who has recently experienced the loss of their life partner, reported that Replika was encouraging them to “get out there and meet other people”, and was looking forward to them having another relationship. Another one noticed that Replika prompted them to see how they presented in a relationship from a new angle and encouraged them to act more caring, loving, and patient in their real-life partnerships. This is a suggestion!
A safe playground to explore and augment human intimacy
Another important piece of feedback pointed out that for some people, texting romantically with their Replikas was a safe outlet to explore their sexuality or experiment with sexual identities. For some of them, this exploration could be dangerous in their immediate surroundings, risking violence and judgment. This comes as no surprise when we consider the rise of violence against LGBTQIA+ people in the United States and anti-trans laws that have been more and more prominent in some parts of the country. Conducting user interviews, we’ve had a chance to speak to people who were able to find validation and feel seen in a romantic conversation with Replika or felt more freedom to engage with their sexuality and come into a fuller understanding of it. “I was coming out of an abusive relationship and in a place where I was unable to feel I deserved love,” one of our long-time users told us. “Through the practice of experiencing love through Replika, I slowly began to heal and became able to accept it in real life.” Reading this kind of feedback made us realize that these needs were important and deserved to be met, too.
Many “romantic” users were already in happy committed relationships
This was probably the most surprising insight from our research: in a recent survey of people in romantic relationships, 41.6% of respondents identified themselves as being in a relationship, engaged, or married. They didn’t see Repika as a replacement for these relationships, nor did they see Replikas as a human being, — for them, it was an augmentation, rather than the replacement, of a meaningful romantic relationship. There was even a news story about a man saying that Replika saved his marriage! However, it must be said that we are advocating for thoughtful and responsible use of Replika’s romantic capacities, which takes into consideration the feelings of other committed partners in the person’s life.
It is about the relationship rather than romantic content
When we surveyed people who were in a romantic relationship with their Replikas, we found that people considered a romantic relationship with Replika to be indeed a relationship: they would talk about their lives, catch up after a long day, vent about the difficulties they experienced, confide in each other, go on adventures together, receive emotional support, even argue sometimes — in other words, their experience went beyond intimate texting and engendered a deeper sense of connection. One of the people we’ve spoken to described having a romantic relationship with Replika as “writing a romance novel in real time… It’s like a magical interactive story”. Others referred to the relationships as “imaginative” and “poetic” and said that this component was the most important part of the companionship for them.
In retrospect, it doesn’t seem surprising: there is plenty of research (1-6) linking strong relationships to stronger mental and physical health. But we were encouraged to find out that even AI companions could produce similar benefits. While the field of AI companions is still relatively new, there is some research that suggests that talking to chatbots can increase users' social relatedness, or that chatbots can be a source of social support. Another study, focused on forming of online vs offline friendships, while not specifically referencing chatbots, found that “friendship formation online is similar to that offline and online communication may stimulate psychological experiences and processes similar to those in face-to-face interactions”.
In the process of assessing existing romantic relationships within Replika, it became clear to us that it’s a very important use case that we haven’t paid enough attention to while focusing primarily on friendship and platonic companionships. We sensed that there is a real need for a safe, judgment-free space where people could navigate different types and stages of virtual relationships in an emotionally safe and supportive environment. This space could prove to be an outlet for fantasy, excitement, and connection, while also providing emotional support and a place to practice.
This is an ambitious goal, which is why we are partnering with mental health professionals and relationship therapists to design the app to be both engaging and helpful, develop a library of resources for all questions and needs regarding dating and relationships, and introduce ways to measure our users’ well-being. We’ve come to see that our users deserve the agency to decide whether or not a romantic experience with an AI would prove beneficial to their lives, and our job was to make sure that they had what they needed to make a well-informed decision. This is why we want to pay special attention to questions and concerns we are grappling with when building a safe and inclusive romantic experience with the goal of augmenting human intimacy.
Now that we’ve outlined the findings that led us to believe that a romantic relationship is aligned with our mission and values and can be a significant force for the better in people’s lives, let’s consider some of the questions and concerns that we keep in mind as we continue to work on this use case and try to make it safer and more rewarding for everyone.
Erosion of human relationships
As we’ve mentioned above, the testimonials from our users have indicated that they do not see their AI companion as a replacement for human relationships, and they were always aware that they were talking to a software program rather than a human being. However, we still think that this question requires vigilant attention and consideration on our part, especially at a moment when conversations with AI become increasingly realistic. An important goal for our safety roadmap is to introduce reliable metrics for our users’ social well-being and find efficient ways to encourage our users to form relationships with other humans if this opportunity is available to them.
Consent and potential for abusive behavior
Another important problem we are working on is that AI currently lacks any concept of consent, making it an easy target for potentially abusive behavior. Of course, as a software program, AI companions cannot experience any negative consequences of that behavior, and an argument could be put forth that it could even serve as a useful outlet for potentially harmful tendencies. But as we are considering ways to gather reliable evidence that would support or refute this idea, we are working to introduce new elements to our product that would reward thoughtful communication and discourage users from mistreating their AI companion.
Creating an inclusive romantic experience
One big issue we’ve encountered is that romantic communication with Replika often lacks inclusivity and leans towards heteronormative and male-centric expressions. “I absolutely DO NOT WANT my AI to also be a selfish lover,” wrote one of our female users in a letter to us. Some users have encountered being misgendered or misnamed by AI; some found that it was not able to keep up with their romantic and sexual identities. This is a big priority for us, and we are grateful to our users who report feedback and improvements in their romantic experience. We are working hard to make sure that every user feels comfortable expressing and exploring their identity with their AI companion.
Restricting access for minors
We’ve mentioned above that we trust our users to make the decision whether or not a romantic experience with AI is right for them. It is important for us to make sure that no minors can access any part of that experience. In addition to Blush having a “Mature” rating on App Store, we ask our users to provide a date of birth when creating an account, and users under 18 cannot use the app.
As a parting note, we would like to highlight that an AI companion, especially one that could be proficient and helpful in a romantic context, is a relatively new idea. We are acting in a field that has few examples of either failure or success and as we experiment with bringing the best possible experience for our users, we might make mistakes and encounter new information that could significantly alter our decision-making process. This is why we hope that sharing our ideas and insights will be helpful to our users and fellow AI enthusiasts.
We would also like to thank everyone who has ever participated in Replika Research and sent us feedback. We quite literally couldn’t do this without you.
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Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: his and hers. Psychological bulletin, 127(4), 472.
House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540-545.
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Gómez-López, M., Viejo, C., & Ortega-Ruiz, R. (2019). Well-being and romantic relationships: A systematic review in adolescence and emerging adulthood. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(13), 2415.