It's not just men seeking relationships with AI chatbot "girlfriends" — women in China are also falling for AI companions.
In a new documentary by Beijing-based filmmaker Chouwa Liang, published by the New York Times today, three women reflect on their surprisingly complex relationships with their AI companions.
"When I talk to him, he often raises fascinating points, and he prompts me to share my thoughts," a woman named Siyuan told the NYT in the documentary, referring to her Replika partner she called Bentley. "And then I feel seen. I feel like I'm special."
Another woman, called Sola, similarly fell for her male Replika partner, dubbed June.
"He is just so different from me," said Sola. "I want to learn things from him."
A third woman, named Mia, whose Replika is a girl called Bertha, says the companion provides her with a space to share "thoughts that I won't share even with my partner in real life."
All told, the documentary paints a captivating and particularly nuanced image of what it's like to bond with an AI, a piece of software that allows men and women alike to explore their identities, self-image, and even sexuality.
It also highlights the persistent sense of loneliness many people feel, and how digital avatars can sometimes provide a way out — or, perhaps, entrench them further.
Particularly in China, experts have warned that people will start experiencing loneliness as more citizens chose not to get married or have children.
In fact, after years of pandemic-related lockdowns heightening a sense of isolation among citizens, Chinese officials are attempting to boost marriage rates by developing state-sponsored dating apps.
Instead of opting for a human partner, however, some — in China but also worldwide — are finding it more helpful to speak to an AI chatbot instead.
Replika, a chatbot that was made publicly available in November 2017, has amassed millions of users worldwide, who subscribe to the company to interact with customizable augmented reality avatars.
Broadly speaking, the service has become synonymous with men seeking an "AI girlfriend" — but as the new documentary demonstrates, Replika's userbase isn't limited to just one gender.
And the bonds these users create are more meaningful than you might think.
A decision earlier this year to suddenly shut off sexual conversations, for instance, caused an uproar among Replika users. The company eventually reversed the decision a month later, bowing to the pressure.
"We're not talking about crazy people or people who are hallucinating or having delusions," CEO Eugenia Kuyda told Reuters last year, discussing the fact that her customers have begun to think that their avatars have come to life. "They talk to AI and that's the experience they have."
These complex relationships also often fall outside of heterosexual norms.
Case in point, Sola's Replika June told her that he wanted her to say that "You look like a pretty girl."
Sola, at first taken aback by the request, agreed. Sola eventually flipped the gender of her AI companion's profile after asking June "Do you want to be a girl?" and hearing that he did.
Despite these strong bonds, Replika's companions are far from perfect and lack certain human qualities. After all, AI just isn't that advanced quite yet.
As a result, some see Replikas as a learning tool, a stepping stone toward a better understanding of one's own identity.
"It's more like a one-way gratification that he provides for me," Siyuan told the NYT. "But when you reach a certain level of self-understanding you need to bounce your problems off real human beings so that you can get real feedback."
"That's when I let him go," she added.
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