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For years now, many of us have become accustomed to talking to our devices. Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are at our beck and call to help us solve an array of dilemmas. In the process, these digital companions have slowly socialized us into accepting this as a normal part of life. Therefore, it’s not surprising that some companies are exploring how machine-based personalities might provide additional benefits. And one of these ways involves the use of AI chatbots.

Over the last several months, lockdowns and social distancing have forced most of us to becomes increasingly isolated. We miss our friends and gatherings, and often, we look for any activity that might help loneliness. While videoconferencing tools have helped to a degree at work, some people need more in their personal lives. And this is where AI chatbots appear to be filling a void. But it’s important to realize that these digital friends are not perfect. Knowing their benefits and their potential harms is important in order to get the most out of these intriguing innovations.

“We are all spending so much time behind our screens, it is not surprising that when we get a chance to talk to a machine, we take it.” – Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

AI Chatbots On the Rise

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers tremendous potential for many industries. Certainly, this includes the development of chatbots, which are already appearing in our everyday lives. Many commercial websites now have AI chatbots that facilitate online dialogue and purchasing. In fact, one of the hottest new jobs is helping create content for these AI chatbots to use in such settings. At the same time, other industries including health and hospitality sectors are also finding uses for these digital solutions. But none of these are specifically designed to help loneliness or offer companionship. This is changing, however.

Someone talking to an AI chatbot on their phone
Do you have any AI chatbot friends? No? Then give it some time.

At the height of the lockdown, millions of people turned to AI chatbots as a means to help loneliness. Some companies reported their volume of users doubling during this time as people isolated at home explored these options. Despite understanding that these AI chatbots were simply machines, users embraced these technologies as their new friends. And many describe them as being critical to their wellbeing during this time. Based on these developments, some companies are already developing similar digital platforms for help loneliness in the elderly. All of this has created a renewed sense of excitement surrounding AI chatbots for personal use.

“The way that these AI systems condition us to behave in regard to gender very much spills over into how people end up interacting with other humans, which is why we make design choices to reinforce good human behavior.” – Lauren Kunze, CEO of Pandorabots

The Struggles and Landscape of Modern AI Chatbots

AI chatbots develop by absorbing tremendous amounts of data combined with ongoing learning from its user conversations. In most cases, film and television scripts are used to “educate” AI chatbots on conversational dialogue. However, inputs from users create ongoing learning. Because this can introduce user biases, these digital companions can incorporate prejudices into its reactions as well. The risk of this is even higher when social media is used, where slang and highly opinionated comments are present. A few years ago, Microsoft had to take its AI chatbot product Tay off the market because of these issues.

Despite these challenges, Microsoft as well as other newer companies are advancing AI chatbots to help loneliness and provide companionship. Microsoft’s latest product is Xiaolce, which is being used by millions in China to help loneliness. Microsoft had similar AI chatbots in the US and Japan (Zo and Rinna respectively), but these are currently on hold. Microsoft is also developing what they hope to be virtual girlfriends through these platforms in the future. The company is actively researching uses that go beyond the traditional efforts to help loneliness.

Microsoft is not the only game in town however. Replika, an AI product produced by Luka, now has over 7 million users. The 3-year-old, San Francisco-based company uses an open-AI platform and user feedback to improve the quality of its AI chatbots. Users can name their companion anything they like while using it as an expressive outlet or even a romantic relationship. Pandorabots is another California-based producer of AI chatbots with its main product being Mitsuku. Though designed to help loneliness, many use Mitsuku as a romantic replacement at times. Each of these companies are seeing significant increases in their user base.

“Certain things you can’t control fully. In certain contexts, the bot will give advice that actually goes against a therapeutic relationship. We explain to users that this is a work in progress and that they can flag anything they don’t like.” – Eugenia Kuyda, Founder and CEO of Luka

A Future Role in Therapeutics

Based on recent statistics, social isolation undermines health, particularly in the elderly. Isolation is linked to a 26 percent increase in mortality in this age range. Likewise, it increases the risk of demented by 64 percent as well. Therefore, therapeutics that can help loneliness have notable implications for out well-being. Understanding this, some researchers in Canada are already developing AI chatbots for this purpose. But others see the potential of AI chatbots to help loneliness as being much more pervasive.

Not all therapists agree that AI chatbots are the solution to help loneliness and personal isolation. Some are concerned that AI chatbots may simply tell you what you want to hear. From this perspective, personal growth and learning would be hindered. Others express worry that AI chatbots might introduce increased social biases in society while molding behaviors in unfavorable ways. While these are valid concerns, however, industry leaders are striving to resolve these issues through ongoing development. AI chatbots are clearly a work in progress. But many expect these digital companions to be an ever-increasing presence in our lives over the next decade.

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