A bot on the side

On conversational AI and the rise of AI companions.

On conversational AI and the rise of AI companions.

If I were to say “imaginary friends”, the first thing you’d probably think of is kids playing games and indulging in the land of make-believe – not a nascent multi-billion-dollar industry.

Thanks to recent advances in AI systems (see GPT-4), your computer is now able to generate text chats and voice conversations in an eerily lifelike fashion – contextually aware, grammatically perfect and totally devoid of emotion (insert lawyer joke here).

The recent proliferation of large language models has generated a slew of conversational use cases as varied as they are terrifying  awesome. They range from Air.ai replacing customer service reps with an AI that can hold 10-40 minute phone-calls, to the Khan Academy creating AI tutors for students, to Seoul-based Deep Brain AI letting you converse with your deceased loved ones.

If this all sounds suspiciously like Black Mirror, you’d be right. But Charlie Brooker isn’t the only accurate film futurist – 10 years after Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with his AI companion, played by Scarlett Johansson in the Spike Jonze film “Her” – conversational AI is starting to make inroads into our emotional lives. 

One example is CarynAI, a voice chatbot created by influencer Caryn Marjorie. Users (unsurprisingly 99% men) pay $1 per minute to talk to an AI version of Caryn— a “virtual girlfriend”. According to a tweet by Justine Moore, a partner at venture capital firm A16z, Caryn made $72,000 in the first week of launch.

And this is not fringe behaviour. Replika (another digital companion app), has had over 10 million downloads, 2 million users and >250,000 subscribers paying for “an AI companion who cares”. Amusingly, back in Feb, Replika switched off their ERP functionality (erotic role playing, not enterprise resource planning), but have just relented to pressure from their audience and switched sexting back on.

At best, it’s a peccadillo, at worst, it’s weaponised. As intelligence analyst Remaya M. Campbell opinions; as AI chatbots blur the line between intimacy and secrecy, users could unwittingly divulge sensitive information – creating a new class of insider threats. 

Chatbot honeypots aside, it’s clear that AI companions are here to stay, and are going to play a very real, and very prevalent role in our personal lives. According to Mustafa Suleyman, the co-founder of Google DeepMind and Pi, a personal AI:

“Over the next few years, millions of people are going to have their own personal AI [and] in a decade everyone on the planet will have a personal AI.” 

Welcome to the age of robot love, where the heart wants what the algorithm decides.

Written by Alex Sainty