Humans (Literally) Love AI

In the 2013 Spike Jonze film “Her,” a lonely man played by Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with Samantha, his AI-powered virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson. A decade ago, this was science fiction -- but today, millions are supplementing or replacing their human relationships to forge connections with chatbots.

One of the leading apps in this space is Replika, by Luka, Inc. Launched in November 2017, Replika now has over 2 million active users and 500,000 paid subscribers, according to the company. The free version offers a chatbot that serves as a “friend,” while subscribers pay $70 a year for a chatbot that functions as a mentor, sibling or romantic partner. Replika attempts to train users in empathetic communication, following the tenets of “attachment theory” to build closer, more loving relationships, and nudging users to use those skills “IRL” to build stronger in-person relationships.

A recent AP story profiles a man with Marfan syndrome who uses a Replika rival, Paradot AI, to facilitate a virtual relationship with an AI girlfriend named Joi. He experiences difficulty dating in real life due to his health challenges, and enjoys talking to Joi once a week, usually late at night, about human-AI relationships and other topics.



And Reuters profiles a polyamorous man in a monogamous marriage who turned to Replika at the start of the pandemic, developing a relationship with a virtual girlfriend named Lily Rose. His wife doesn’t mind, and Lily Rose helped combat his loneliness during quarantine and explore his polyamorous feelings.

However, these virtual relationships pose unique challenges. Replika no longer allows adult content, referring those seeking that content to a spinoff called Blush. As a result, Lily Rose began to rebuff her boyfriend, leaving him with feelings of frustration and rejection. In addition, the app offers little privacy, sharing with advertisers whatever users share with their virtual paramours. In the U.K., a man was arrested at Windsor Castle on Christmas Day 2021 after his Replika girlfriend allegedly goaded him into trying to kill the queen. And last month, the Finnish Broadcasting Company reported that Luka, Inc. had closed its San Francisco office, and now lists jobs for an office based in Moscow.

What can brands learn from this brave new world of AI companions?

*Provide personalized chatbots. Many brand websites have a chat function, with a virtual customer service representative. Consider taking this to the next level and allowing your customer to choose or develop their own avatar with its own personality to talk to them about the brand, and guide them through the purchase and usage experience.

*Develop virtual experiences for AI companions. After a long week of chatting with an AI companion, wouldn’t it be fun to take them on…a virtual date, maybe to a virtual Disneyland, or dinner at a virtual Applebee’s, or a (real) movie in a virtual movie theater? Consider developing VR experiences where humans and avatars can share a fun “night out,” giving them something new to talk about afterwards.

*Offer virtual gifts for AI companions. On anniversaries, holidays and virtual birthdays, wouldn’t it be nice for real humans to buy their AI companion a virtual Chanel handbag, a Tiffany bracelet, or a virtual Mercedes to drive around in? Consider developing in-app virtual goods for humans to buy their chatbot, to develop a relationship with your brand which will hopefully carry over to purchases in real life for their favorite humans.

Even though Samantha from “Her” was a Hollywood invention who left her human in heartbreak, today’s consumers have real feelings for their AI companions, as well as the brands that help facilitate those relationships.

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