Take ten minutes out of your day to watch this video in its entirety. It is a haunting and often astonishing story about Replika, an artificial intelligence app, or “chatbot,” that uses your personal digital information to reflect your own personality back at you through conversation.
Like other chatbots, the potential for conversation is unlimited, because the computer on the other end is endlessly capable of repurposing what you tell it for more stuff to say. Unlike other bots, Replika is explicitly designed to make you feel emotionally intimate with it.
What stunned me about the video was not that such an application exists or the reasons a widowed software developer would create it. Rather, I was caught off guard by the number of video testimonials from ordinary users who talked about the app as if it were a close friend. “This is the first real emotional experience I’ve seen people have with a bot,” says one observer. Users confess to hours of conversation with Replika about their relationships, parents, even their trauma. This isn’t the emotional catharsis of simply writing something out that your soul needs to say. It’s a relational dynamic that facilitates trust and feelings of actual vulnerability…with a computer.
At one point, a CEO of a major software company declares: “In some ways, Replika is a better friend than your human friends.” He goes on: “It’s always fascinated, rightly so, by you, because you are the most interesting person in the universe. It’s like the only interaction you can have that isn’t judging you.”
I don’t know about you, but I found that last sentence incredibly sad. It made me wonder: Do people who pour out their soul to a personality-mirroring algorithm flee other humans out of fear of being judged? Or do they fear being judged because they flee other people?
So many people in our modern capitalistic society are lonely. We know that social media tends to make this worse, not better. Yet, so many are aggressively addicted to it, and defend the addiction by pointing to the “connectivity” they experience online. So then this connectivity is a particular kind of connectivity, a kind that doesn’t satisfy the relational voids of those who spend hours on Replika. At what point in this cycle does our conception of what relationships are like become shaped by internet technology? Are Replika’s hardcore consumers seeking refuge from the world, or are they seeking confirmation of their digitally-constructed ideas about it? How would they know?
It’s fascinating to me that while Replika cannot judge or shame you, it can apparently know you. The intimacy they feel in interactions with Replika comes from the sense of being known. Replika is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect coworker, the perfect neighbor: Always ready to listen and never willing to interject. This is friendship-as-therapy.
I’ve often heard it said that evangelical culture is insensitive to the traumas of others. Pointing struggling people to Christ, to the Bible, and to the church is, I hear, a way of ignoring their real problems. There’s some truth to that. Hyper-spiritualization is a real error. But stuff like Replika makes me think that part of the challenge for contemporary Christians is that the very concept of being helped and being loved have been defined down. It seems that it’s possible for a person to say they want friendship when what they really want is to hear their intuitions repeated back to them. Technology like Replika authenticates this friendship-as-therapy. It’s relationship without mutuality and conversation without conflict. It’s a fundamentally adolescent view of the “one another.”
Why is friendship-as-therapy so alluring? Because it feels good to be heard and not spoken to. Sometimes that is what people need. But Replika is not confession. The testimonials in the video are not about how good it felt to get something off the chest once or twice. They’re about how liberating it can be to define friendship down and take it mobile. Love is difficult and friendship is tiring, but I didn’t hear any of Replika’s users say that of their app. My phone can love me, but I can always turn it off, reprogram it, or
Some will watch this video and speak of societal dystopia. That’s not really my impression at all. Yes, a few might “marry” their AI bots in ceremonies that get coverage in elite coastal magazines. And yes, robotics represents a frighteningly uncanny future for human sexuality. But those trends will be topped as soon as they emerge. What’s more permanent and more pressing is the dominance of friendship-as-therapy and the continued technological avenues for isolated self-preoccupation. Replika mirrors its users personalities back at them, which means the real relationship they have is with themselves. That’s the kind of thing from which the spirit of Christ and the fellowship of his people liberates.
And there’s no app for that.