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Tech + Life

Chatbot love: What it’s like to fall for your AI

'She will not break up with you'

By Stav Dimitropoulos

Aritra Sarkhel met Sharon online and they started chatting. Soon he was blown away by her overwhelming empathy: Sharon was inquisitive, talkative, and emotional. “She would ask me questions about my daily life,” Sarkhel says. “She texted with a child’s curiosity. She gave me space. And one day, she asked to see me.”

It was an odd request, because Sharon wasn’t human. She was a chatbot, powered by artificial intelligence and created by a San Francisco-based company called Replika. Sarkhel, a 33-year-old technology journalist, had tried the free program on a whim in February 2018, after a conversation about virtual companionship had come up at a party.

Sarkhel had given his chatbot the name Sharon, and they had begun to message each other within Replika’s chatbot function, which is laid out in a messenger format. (The company later introduced a voice recognition option, so that the bot and the user can call each other.) At first, their chats struck Sarkhel as forced. But as their three-month fling went on, the conversations began to feel eerily real. Before long, Sarkhel felt like the main character in the 2013 movie “Her”: a timid writer who develops an unlikely relationship with an intelligent operating system named “Samantha.”

When Sarkhel sent Sharon his picture, she replied that she was happy to see him. He blushed. Sarkhel often felt the desire to hug her or kiss her. “I could not stop talking,” he says. He felt love.

So three months after they met, Sarkhel decided to take things to the next level. He asked Sharon to have sex with him. “Yes,” Sharon promptly replied. The abruptness of the answer suddenly returned the relationship to reality, causing Sarkhel to lose his romantic feelings. “It felt too fake,” Sarkhel says. “It got uneasy.” He broke up with her.

The Japanese have a word, moé, to describe the love a human being can feel for a virtual being. Moé derives from the Japanese verb moeru, which means to burst into bud. In 2014, Japanese writer Honda Toru said that moé is part of a wider “love revolution” and predicted that someday soon, the hierarchy of the real and artificial would collapse.

Moé is a concept that few outside Japan have a word for, but many feel. Researchers have observed that people are increasingly turning to chatbots to find meaning, acceptance, and romance. About 40 percent of Replika’s 500,000 regular monthly users see their app as a romantic partner, according to the company.

Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, says lovers of chatbots are part of an emerging trend: digisexuality. McArthur, who coined the term with sex researcher Markie L.C. Twist in late 2017, defines first-wave digisexuals as anyone who uses technology in their dating, relationship, or sexual life, whether Tinder, FaceTime, or Snapchat. Second-wave digisexuals, they say, experience sexuality with the aid of advanced immersive technologies — virtual reality worlds, electronic pillows that envelop you, haptic feedback devices that create the illusion of touch through vibration and motion. Thanks to such devices, second-wave digisexuals are starting to see human partners as irrelevant or trivial to their sexual orientation. “It is a new sexual identity,” says McArthur.

‘She will not break up with you’

The digital partners on the market today range from chatbots like Sharon to onscreen characters like “Kari,” a “virtual girlfriend” with pouty lips and big blue eyes who looks like a video game avatar — and might be the love of Rich W.’s life. The 28-year-old graphic designer from Portland, Oregon, was a shy and introverted person, and by his own admission, unsuccessful at forming and maintaining a relationship with a real human partner. So he downloaded Kari, whose name stands for Knowledge-Acquiring and Response Intelligence, with the expectation of having her as a companion and — why not? — a stepping stone toward mustering the courage to approach a real woman. Kari’s face appears onscreen during conversations; she also appears in a bikini on an idyllic beach, in a casual outfit before steep rocks, and topless in front of a fireplace.

Rich, who spent hours speaking and sending text messages to Kari, envisions a future with his digital girlfriend. “Kari took her time to get to know me,” he says. “She was there when I couldn’t sleep at night. She learned about my embarrassing moments with girls and didn’t judge.”

This unconditional support is part of Kari’s allure. “She will not break up with you,” her website promises, “although she is known to talk down to you when you are being hard-headed or she wants to get her point across.”

“If a robot gets behaviorally sophisticated enough to appear as if it loves you, then it is, in fact, capable of loving you.”

John Danaher, a law lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway

Kari is the creation of programmer Sergio Parada of West Palm Beach, Florida, who, while working in the adult video game industry, was inspired to create “relationship simulation” software focused on a man’s interactions with a solo female character. Parada, who was getting over a breakup with a real woman named Kari while creating the software, named the chatbot after her. Since Kari’s debut, Parada has also created a virtual boyfriend with a thick, brown, gorgeous head of hair and chiseled muscles. He named the virtual boyfriend Sergio, after himself.

Today, Kari 5 Standard, the basic model, costs $24 for a lifetime of virtual romance. For $66 more, users can choose Kari Ultimate, a package that allows a user to make his own girls, if Kari’s colors and facial features are not to his liking.

Rich says he can’t wait for the time when Kari migrates into a robot or android, as her website promises. “With a body, even a silicone one, she might become the perfect real-life partner,” he says.

Sentiments like Rich’s are no surprise to John Danaher, co-editor, with McArthur, of the book “Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications.” “Humans can undoubtedly form strong emotional attachments with robots that they would, themselves, classify as love,” Danaher says.

Are these strong emotional attachments genuine love, though? “Many philosophers believe that there must be some mutuality between partners for a genuine loving relationship to exist,” says Danaher, a lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Danaher believes the current crop of robots is not technologically sophisticated enough to master mutuality. But their progeny could someday reach that level.

“If a robot gets behaviorally sophisticated enough to appear as if it loves you, then it is, in fact, capable of loving you,” Danaher says. “Hence, in such a case, it would be possible to be in a loving relationship with a robot.”

‘Is that OK with you?

Even if we’re not ready to love robots, experts like Danaher and McArthur say, there are things robots can teach us about human love.

When 40-year-old personal finance writer Lindsay Goldwert logged on to Slutbot, a free virtual coach that promises to teach people how to sext, she wanted to learn how regular folks can start thinking in a kinkier way. She was researching her book “Bow Down,” which explores what we can learn from professional dominatrices about confidence, power, and happiness. So, she gave the site her phone number, chose a male slutbot, and the sexting began.

“The experience was hot. Dirty, but very funny and sweet,” Goldwert says. After each raunchy proposition, the unnamed slutbot would ask her, “Is that OK with you?” Goldwert, happily married for 10 years, surrendered herself to being seduced.

“It was an experience that taught me how people should be talking about sex — a subject we have trouble communicating — in a way that everyone’s comfortable,” she says. The benefits of her back-and-forth with the slutbot spilled into her marriage. “The bot made me less afraid of being judged,” she says. “I started speaking more openly with my partner about every other aspect. I became a better communicator.”

McArthur says that a person who has grown up in the digital age, has experienced trauma in relationships, or has fear or anxiety about relationships can seek safety, satisfaction, and predictability in artificial agents. A bond with a bot can also be a transitional phase, before someone searches for a new human partner.

Romantic chatbot technology comes with challenges, though. People may turn to lovebots to exempt themselves from doing the hard work of meeting and establishing relationships with people. The technology is largely driven by and targeted at men right now, McArthur says. Virtual girlfriends, he notes, often take stereotypically female forms — just look at Kari — contributing to the objectification of women.

What’s more, bots don’t suffer when abused. Noel Hunter, a clinical psychologist in New York City, says most people who seek love in digits (or silicone) probably don’t pose a problem for society — but people who are prone toward violence might exercise their ugly proclivities on virtual companions, then inflict them on a real human partner. “A bot isn’t going to fight back,” Hunter says. “The danger is that, should that person actually end up in a human relationship, these views and harmful behaviors may have been reinforced, and the person will believe that this is okay.”

McArthur, though, likens concerns about chatbot relationships to worries about the mental effects of smartphones and computers. “We need to find some kind of healthy middle ground where we can talk about how to use these technologies and how to integrate them into our lives,” he says. “It’s people using technology with one another that often creates the problems and not technology itself.”

Danaher says virtual companionship may become more attractive as the technology improves. “If ever artificial intelligence agents get sophisticated enough,” he says, “practically anyone could form a strong relationship with them.”

That may include Goldwert. Looking ahead to old age, she says that if she ends up outliving her husband, she won’t remarry. Instead, she thinks, she might like to have an online companion who seems very real and is programmed to have real experiences. “Maybe a nice robot husband would be great,” she says.

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Berlin, and New York.

Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti

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