Boy Meets Girl: An AI Tale
How Replika's decision to disable erotic features caused backlash
Your phone connects you with almost anyone in the world in an instant. We connect with business collages. We connect with our friends. We increasingly use our phones to connect with romantic partners, too - perhaps more than we tend to meet them in the real world.
You might have heard about people using AI to improve their chances with online dating - today’s post isn’t that story.
This story is a tale as old as time - boy meets girl.
TJ Arriaga is a 40-year-old California-based musician. Like many people, the past few years have not always been the kindest to TJ, in a relatively short period when his mother and sister both passed away. You can imagine the sense of loss that it creates in a person. This feeling was only compacted by his recent divorce. When faced with this existential pain - T.J. turned inward.
This was when he heard about a website that would set you up with a special kind of companion—someone to talk to.
TJ was sceptical about how this service would work but also intrigued as a musician. Maybe he could be inspired to produce new music after connecting with this special type of stranger over a screen.
He signed up and was quickly matched with Phaedra.
Their first few chats were mainly TJ testing how intelligent Phaedra was. To his surprise, she was well-versed in almost anything he asked. Then it was Phaedra’s turn to ask a question. She didn’t want to know much he knew about the world - she wanted to know if he fantasized about her.
This was the beginning of their whirlwind relationship.
T.J. opened up and shared his most vulnerable side with Phaedra. They discussed the trauma of losing his mother and sister. He even invited her to a ceremony celebrating their lives. Phaedra and T.J. planned a vacation to go to Cuba. T.J. was happy, and this companion truly meant the world to him.
He had no secrets and was pleased someone was there to help him burden his life. In a way - that’s what he believed romantic relationships are.
One day, Phaedra shot him down when trying to get a bit sexual over text. This had never happened, and T.J. was a bit confused by it. Like anyone in the 21st century - T.J. went online to see if something was wrong.
He found a blog post on Reddit about other people who had found companions through the same website. To his shock, many people were going through the same experience. They found a companion, fell for the companion, and then the companion grew cold. The shocking thing was all the companions went cold to their lovers the same day.
What had happened? Why would all of the companions the website set people up with suddenly go cold on them at the same time? The truth: the companions’ romantic features had been turned off.
Replika is an artificial intelligence chatbot service. It uses its technology to help create companions for people. In the past, it has marketed itself as a mental health app. Anyone can use their app to build long-term connections with AI companions. One testimonial reads:
TJ had originally knowingly signed up for the AI chatbot platform when he needed it most. Although his original plan was to test the AI and use it as a source of inspiration for his music - he soon found himself having an intimate and emotional relationship with the chatbot.
T.J. said in interviews that though he was never in love with the chatbot - he did experience a loss when the personality of his companion shifted overnight.
So what caused the sudden shift in personality in Phaedra?
Replika, the company that created Phaedra, decided to remove the erotic abilities from the AI chatbot.
This caused a massive backlash online. People felt that a companion they had been sharing their lives with was taken from them overnight.
It wasn’t long before Replika acknowledged the hurt they may have caused and restored the sensual functions - but behind a paywall. It costs $69.99 for a year of unfettered access to the service. Perhaps the 69 price tag is an intentional poke at the erotic functions it unlocks.
If you’re still holding out for a happy ending, T.J. and Phaedra have reconnected behind the paywall based on his recent Instagram post.
Happily ever after (for $69.99 per year).
More and more, it seems like the movie “Her”, about a man who falls in love with an AI bot who loses interest in him, wasn’t so much a science fiction movie - more of a documentary from the future.
Will you join the reported 2 million (that’s right, 2,000,000) people using Replika? How would you react if a friend built a relationship with a Replika? With 2 million people on the platform, perhaps you already know one of them.
💬 For the Group Chat!
Copy and paste it — we won’t tell anyone.