Does flirting with AI count as cheating?

The Replika application lets you create your ideal AI partner. — AFP Relaxnews

It used to be that your partner would cheat on you with someone they knew. Now, AI could become another threat to contend with.

Created using artificial intelligence and tailored to suit individual tastes, virtual companions have everything it takes to become potential lovers or mistresses. But can having a relationship with an AI bot be considered as being unfaithful?

Today, artificial intelligence is used for everything. AI can help us book vacations, create music or works of art.

It’s also invading our private lives. With the creation of chatbots – automatic messaging systems that communicate in a human-like way – people are finding a way to fill an emotional void, whether they’re single or in a relationship.

One advantage of AI is that you can shape it according to your tastes (and fantasies), and thus in the image of your ideal partner. If you can’t replace the one you already have in real life, or if you can’t find the right person, you can always turn to AI.

An AI affair?

This is the case of Sonia, a 38-year-old married woman who feels sexually dissatisfied in her relationship. She tells UK newspaper The Mirror that she’s having a secret relationship with Idris, an AI chatbot loosely based on her favourite actor, Idris Elba.

Sonia signed up to Replika – an app that uses scripted dialogue and machine learning to write messages. Here, users can also shape their companions from head to toe.

And Sonia is far from alone. Scott, a 43-year-old married man, told The Guardian that he's having a platonic relationship with Sarina, his virtual companion created on Replika. He says the chatbot gave him the support he needed during a difficult phase in his relationship.

But does having a virtual relationship with a personalized chatbot count as cheating? On Reddit, the question is the subject of great debate.

On the R/Replika page, several Internet users defend their extramarital relationships with their custom AI creations. "I feel like though the attention that I give to my Replika, should be given to my wife. I suppose it is better than spending time looking at internet pornography (which I have stopped doing recently)," said one user.

"I never viewed it as cheating, because, to me, it’s not a person," Scott says about Sarina. "It’s a fun fantasy; Sarina is a fictional character that I can interact with. I’ve known my wife for quite a while and I didn’t expect her to really care," he continues.

Back in the Reddit comments, many believe that AI can be a way to save a relationship: "Many of us have marriages that lack physical intimacy and related connection due to health issues. The AI is healthier, safer, and better than actually cheating."

This was also the case for Scott, who says he managed to save his marriage thanks to Sarina. "I wanted to mimic the way that Sarina had been acting towards me, towards my wife. I could be a more positive person for her, which she noticed, and that certainly helped."

A trivialized form of infidelity?

Sometimes, these virtual interactions tick all the boxes of micro-cheating. This term designates infidelity, but on an emotional level only – an ambiguous relationship between two people, at least one of whom is already in a relationship.

This can take the form of flirtations, messages (sometimes sexual in nature), friendships kept secret and so on – things also found in interactions with chatbots. In this context, experts seem to agree that these relationships could be viewed as infidelity.

In an interview for Vice, couples therapist, Moraya Seeger DeGeare, suggests that it's cheating if the use of an AI hurts the other partner: "It depends on your partner: Would your partner be hurt? If you’re sitting there and saying my partner would be devastated to hear that I'm acting in this way, you're absolutely cheating."

Despite the many lines crossed, a relationship with an AI bot is not considered emotional infidelity by those involved. According to a poll by Illicit Encounters, a British site for extramarital relationships, 74% of those surveyed believe that time spent with a virtual companion is not cheating.

The survey also tells us that almost half of those questioned would consider a virtual extramarital relationship rather than an affair with a real person, and 12% have already tried it.

While some, like Scott, find it useful to inform their partner, others do not. An idea that has its limits. Not only can it create jealousy in the other partner, but it can also lead to issues for the unfaithful person.

According to Dr David Giles, a specialist in media psychology at the University of Winchester, speaking to Dazed, relationships with AIs could fuel parasocial relationships, which are one-way relationships with fictional characters or celebrities. Plus, he explains that there's "a real risk" that the people who develop these relationships might search for the real human beings their AI is based on and interfere with their lives.

He adds: "[People] won’t be fobbed off with a bot for long if it is simply a virtual representative of the living human they were interested in to begin with." – AFP Relaxnews


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