Replika CEO: AI chatbots aren’t just for lonely men

Instead of judging people who seek out companionship or, yes, romantic and sexual connection from AI, Kuyda (pic) says, we should dig deeper. — Replika/The New York Times

A few weeks ago, a clip of Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd speaking at Bloomberg’s Technology Summit went slightly viral. In the clip, Wolfe Herd envisioned the future of dating – one in which two users’ AI avatars talk to each other first, figuring out whether the human users should meet in person.

The video stirred up people’s complex feelings about the future of AI in dating. But that future isn’t so far off – in fact, in some ways, it’s already here.

ALSO READ: My perfect girlfriend: Are AI partners warping men’s attitudes towards real-world relationships?

Eugenia Kuyda is the founder and CEO of Replika, an eight-year-old startup that offers an AI companion. Its two million users and 500,000 paying subscribers talk to Replika’s chatbot to lift their moods, work through life’s hardest challenges, and stave off loneliness. Replika was used by some as a romantic AI companion; the company spun off that functionality into a separate platform called Blush.

Kuyda spends much of her time trying to destigmatise the role of AI in dating. People’s dismissal of these kinds of chatbots is often a “knee-jerk reaction”, she says. Instead of judging people who seek out companionship or, yes, romantic and sexual connection from AI, she says, we should dig deeper.

ALSO READ: What happens when your AI chatbot stops loving you back?

“Why are people having these relationships? What are they doing for them? Are they making them feel better over time? Are they more ready to interact and connect with people in real life?” she asks. “Can these relationships become stepping stones? I think they can.”

The stereotype is that users of AI chatbots are lonely men seeking out female companionship, like in the movie Her (speaking of another recent AI controversy). Kuyda says that Replika has “a lot” of female users, including one who left an abusive relationship after experiencing a “healthy” one via a chatbot and another who relied on a Replika chatbot for support amid postpartum depression.

ALSO READ: Scarlett Johansson says OpenAI chatbot voice ‘eerily similar’ to hers

More interestingly, much of the Replika team is female – Kuyda herself, along with chief product officer for Replika and Blush Rita Popova and head of product Daria Tatarkova, who leads the new therapy and meditation-focused platform Tomo. “These products are built by women,” Kuyda says.

Kuyda has predicted (including at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference) that these kinds of relationships will become less stigmatised over time. Users’ experiences vary; in addition to long-term relationships, others have reported “creepy interactions”, from unprompted flirtation by the chatbot to the bot mimicking its user.

“Our project is really much more about human vulnerabilities than tech capabilities,” Kuyda says. “This is a human-centric project.” – New York Times

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