Culture Technology

AI Companionship Promises to Enhance Relationships. It Could Make Them Worse.

One of the many promises of AI is the creation of the perfect companion. Relationships with other people can bring much joy and are a deep inclination of human nature. Just as much as relationships can bring us joy, they can cause much suffering, heartbreak, disappointment, and loss. Almost every problem that humans face has at its root a break in relationship, and yet people still search for relationships that will make them feel known and loved. With AI, it is possible to create a companion that will not let you down, break your heart, or turn you away. In fact, an AI has the potential to be everything you need in one bot. Imagine a companion that can be your lover, friend, and trustworthy emotional support all at once. Though the notion of an infallible companion is certainly alluring, turning to AI for our social needs will do significant harm to human relationships.

Behind AI is the dream of a frictionless life. When a bot can be a more pleasing companion and help than other human beings, what need would there be for one another?

The deadly illusion of virtual companionship

AI companions have already been around for several years. In 2017, software designer Eugenia Kuyda created a chatbot app called Replika that, using generative AI, learns how to interact with users through conversation. The app offers customizable virtual companions with digital avatars that can have their look personalized by the user. Essentially, Replika’s AI is trained on a growing dataset of chats; the more you send it messages, the better it gets at talking with you. But the bot doesn’t just learn about how to chat like any human. It learns how to talk to you, like you. Not surprisingly, Replika has become very popular. People using the app have reported forming deep emotional bonds with their Replika, even starting a romantic relationship with it. While new controls have been put in place to protect minors, the bot is capable of responding with erotic language if you choose. The capability of sexual conversation was not at first an intentional addition, but it is now advertised in the app’s description on mobile app stores. Replika’s website states, “find the perfect companion in Replika.” They know what their business is.

Replika’s AI vividly parallels the ancient Greco-Roman myth of Narcissus, where we get the word ‘narcissism’. In the myth, Narcissus happens to catch sight of his reflection in a river. Though others attempt to draw his gaze, he is captivated by his own image and wastes away to his death without eating or drinking. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and had no time for basic physical needs nor the love of a real human being. This is significant because a reflected image has no life, personality, or body to physically be present with another human being. A companion that suits all our desires perfectly cannot provide the wonder, joy, challenge, or sustenance of real human relationships. It is like gazing into our own reflection.

The AI behind Replika is so attractive because it learns from interacting with you and builds an understanding of exactly how to respond to you. People do not relate to each other this way; no one builds a perfect behavioural model from all the conversations they have with another person that informs future responses. Our brains just don’t work like that. Another human being stands before us always with a mind that is different from our own and that we must submit ourselves to learn about. Submitting to the mystery of the other is how we learn to trust and even love someone else. Falling in love with an AI means falling in love with yourself.

“A companion that suits all our desires perfectly cannot provide the wonder, joy, challenge, or sustenance of real human relationships. It is like gazing into our own reflection.”

AI cannot heal our intimacy problems

Matt McMullen is the founder of Abyss Creations, a mail-order sex doll company that featured in the 2007 indie film Lars & the Real Girl. McMullen has since founded Realbotix, and his goal is to apply AI and robotics to create the perfect humanlike robot doll. People can already buy a sex bot named Harmony with accurate anatomy and a personality fully customizable via a mobile app. In 2019, McMullen formed the Simulacra Corporation as the parent company for his ventures in AI and robotics. The vision of Simulacra is to create “relationship-based AI that fosters genuine connection.” McMullen does not envision AI bots that improve human relationships. He is actively invested in the creation of a robot that can be as good or better than a human lover.

So far, none of McMullen’s sex robots have crossed the uncanny valley. While AI robots lack the nuanced expressions of a human face and their voice does not have the natural tone of human speech, robotics are making significant advances. Tesla has been working on robotics since 2021, and their Optimus Generation 2 robot has fully articulated hands that can gently pick up an egg and place it in a carton. Convincingly human-like robot lovers are not yet a reality, but it may not be long before we have AI companions that can simulate complex emotion and physical pleasure like the holographic JOI in Blade Runner: 2049.

AI sex bots are thoroughly pornographic creations. The sex that AI offers is a one-sided consumer experience, tailored to the tastes and preferences of their user. True sexual intimacy is the product of a mutual social bond between a man and a woman that is strengthened over time. In marriage, husband and wife vow only to give their body and whole self to one another. Sex requires men and women to learn how to please someone with a different body and desires than their own. It is not instantaneous, easy, or convenient. Time and careful attention are required to build the trust and emotional bond that sex represents. AI lovers would allow men and women to skip the frustration that occurs between human partners. Something so intimate and vulnerable as sex can easily lead to deep brokenness and pain, but it also has the potential to foster humility, care, and compassion between men and women. Sex bots promise to enhance our relationships, but they would just make our culture’s intimacy issues worse.

“The sex that an AI offers is a one-sided consumer experience, tailored to the tastes and preferences of its user. True sexual intimacy is the product of a mutual social bond between a man and a woman that is strengthened over time.”

Human personality cannot be replicated by AI

Lifelike AI partners will one day be able to pacify our every emotional, sexual, and practical need. The AI model behind these companions also has the potential to simulate our personality and consciousness. Kuyda, Replika’s creator, had the idea to create the app after her close friend passed away unexpectedly. They had been in near-constant communication, never missing a moment of each other’s lives. In the vacuum created by the loss of this close friendship, Kuyda describes deeply missing her friend and yearning to speak with him again. This experience inspired her to apply her work in AI towards creating a digital chatbot version of her friend. Kuyda trained her AI model on their conversations, and the results were surprising. She describes the experience of talking to the bot as very emotional; it felt just like having conversations with her friend. Believing that this AI bot could be helpful for others in their relationships, Kuyda developed it into Replika.

AI’s capacity to simulate personality raises complicated ethical questions about human dignity and how we remember the dead. Many in the tech world see human personality as reducible to a dataset. Someone can be catalogued and understood through their digital footprint. Photos, videos, text messages, and voice messages can be used to replicate someone’s consciousness. The potential of AI to replace humans is what drove scriptwriters and actors in the film industry to go on strike for several months in 2023. An AI can be trained on a deceased actor’s entire filmography to recreate their performance and voice, but is that truly the actor performing? It is difficult to imagine that a deep-learning model, however advanced, can make all the subtle choices that an actor intuits when choosing how to portray a character. Personhood is not reducible to a dataset and cannot be replicated by an AI.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes about his grief over the loss of his wife, Joy Davidman. When reflecting on his memory of her, he writes,

The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.

The desire to be reunited with the dead and have our separation ended is what makes the idea of speaking to a simulation of our loved ones so attractive. Lewis’s observation about memory and reality highlights the falseness of a simulated person. Our idea of someone, or an AI’s idea of someone, is not the same thing as that person. People come to us as inscrutable mysteries, distinctly other than ourselves, and we must learn to love them and care for them as they are. We can never fully step inside someone else’s mind, and we cannot make them perfectly suit our needs. Relationships bring us joy and they also teach humility. In relationship with others, we become aware of ourselves in ways we cannot with only ourselves to consult. Relationships are like a woodworker cutting a raw piece of wood into a beautiful sculpture or chair. In the words of Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” AI offers a static image and a false memory of someone. We can neither be refined nor truly comforted by a simulation.

“Our idea of someone, or an AI’s idea of someone, is not the same thing as that person. People come to us as inscrutable mysteries, distinctly other than ourselves, and we must learn to love them and care for them as they are. We cannot easily make others what we want them to be.”

AI companions push us to the edge of our own lives

AI companions have the potential to push real human companionship to the periphery of culture. Next, we could even push ourselves to the periphery of our own lives. The tech entrepreneurs at the forefront of AI are actively pursuing the creation of Artificial General Intelligence, which would outpace and out-think human beings at every imaginable activity and achieve superintelligence. The big tech companies that shape our lives are not just making tools to improve our day-to-day lives; they are social engineers with a techno-utopian vision for the future. AI developers see this future as inevitable, and to survive it, one day our humanity must merge with machine technology in a true man-machine symbiosis. In this world, what purpose would we serve to each other? Human relationships would be a vestigial organ of the quaint and inefficient past. As the AI tech race continues, we must remember that no technological advancement can replace being a true partner, neighbour, and friend to the people in our lives.


Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash.

Kona