A chatbot is providing companionship for the locked-down and lonely.
What’s new: Downloads of Replika, a chatbot designed to be a virtual friend, have spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, reports the New York Times. The service reported the biggest surge in its three-year history in April.

Besties: Users select the bot’s name, gender, and avatar and chat via text or voice. It asks about their day, listens to their problems, and offers advice and affirmations. Users said the app soothes their anxieties and provides an outlet for their frustrations.

  • Built by Luka, a San Francisco-based AI company, Replika has hundreds of thousands of users, who send an average of 70 messages daily. Users can chat freely or choose structured activities like guided conversation.
  • Luka developed the original version using pre-transformer natural language technology. Recently it shifted to OpenAI’s recently commercialized GPT-3.
  • The app is geared to provide positive feedback, a common therapeutic approach, but it’s not entirely consistent. For instance, it may provide bad advice to users who share thoughts of self-harm, Luka said.

Behind the news: Replika grew out of an earlier effort by its creator, Eugenia Kuyda, to simulate conversations with a friend who had died in an automobile accident. That version was trained on several years’ worth of the friend’s texts.
Why it matters: The spread of Covid-19 has left countless people lonely and isolated. Chatbots offer a cost-effective, albeit imperfect, outlet for social interactions.

We’re thinking: AI probably will never make an entirely satisfying substitute for human relationships (even the therapeutic chatbot Woebot, for which Andrew Ng serves as a board member). In a socially distanced world, though, it can be an important surrogate.

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