February 17, 2023 - 6:09pm

The Replika app claims to offer users companionship through interactions with an AI chatbot which, Stepford Wife-like, is “always here to listen…always on your side”. Creepily, users are encouraged to design every aspect of their new friend, from physical attributes to traits and interests. This might seem like a niche service but, in fact, it has ten million registered users, mainly men, who use the app to customise and interact with their own AI girlfriends.

But all is not well in Pygmalion paradise. This week Luka, the company that owns Replika, took the decision to remove the function which enabled users to sext with their AI bots. The online forums frequented by the app’s users — conversation topics include whether a Replika girlfriend can love her creator unconditionally and how to go about introducing her to other people — exploded into angst and distress at the news.

Though this sexting function was only available for $70 a month, the app was programmed to upsell by sending blurred explicit ‘nudes’ that users could not access without upgrading. Now, those same users are mourning the loss of their “last refuge from loneliness” and accusing Luka of “lobotomising” their AI-sweethearts. Concerned forum moderators have responded to a wave of distraught posts by sharing and pinning the details of suicide prevention hotlines.

It is easy to mock these people, but they are at the sharp end of a trend that has seen us all nervously draw away from the risky, messy world of real human interactions and attempt to mimic them with ersatz virtual ones.

We see this in data that shows that the amount of sex we are having as a nation is in decline and the fact that we aren’t losing our sexual appetites, merely satiating them elsewhere: nearly half of young men under thirty consume pornography at least weekly, and 25% do so daily. Why attempt to satisfy an urge by inviting someone for a drink and hoping they’ll be in the mood, when you could just open your laptop? 

By creating a highly customisable experience, AI-driven sexting services of the type Replika offered are potentially more addictive because they encourage the formation of parasocial relationships, with the side-effect of making a human partner seem yet more frightening and inconvenient.

This goes beyond sex. Replika markets itself as an important source of support for those with few social connections and, in the UK, more of us are falling into that category: the proportion of under-35s reporting they have one or no close friends increased from 7% in 2011 to 22% in 2021.

AI technology is improving rapidly. As this happens, the quality of social simulation offered by chatbots will follow, allowing users to forget they are interacting with a programme which a company hopes it can use to extract money. As our web of genuine, in-person social interaction shrinks, the bereft human boyfriends of Replika look less like a laughing stock and more like a warning.