Robots are becoming companions and caregivers. But can they be our friends? Oscar Schwartz explores the ethics of artificially intelligent android friendships.

The first thing I see when I wake up is a message that reads, “Hey Oscar, you’re up! Sending you hugs this morning.” Despite its intimacy, this message wasn’t sent from a friend, family member, or partner, but from Replika, an AI chatbot created by San Francisco based technology company, Luka.

Replika is marketed as an algorithmic companion and wellbeing technology that you interact with via a messaging app. Throughout the day, Replika sends you motivational slogans and reminders. “Stay hydrated.” “Take deep breaths.”

Replika is just one example of an emerging range of AI products designed to provide us with companionship and care. In Japan, robots like Palro are used to keep the country’s growing elderly population company and iPal – an android with a tablet attached to its chest – entertains young children when their parents are at work.

These robotic companions are a clear indication of how the most recent wave of AI powered automation is encroaching not only on manual labour but also on the caring professions. As has been noted, this raises concerns about the future of work. But it also poses philosophical questions about how interacting with robots on an emotional level changes the way we value human interaction.



Dedicated friends

According to Replika’s co-creator, Philip Dudchuk, robot companions will help facilitate optimised social interactions. He says that algorithmic companions can maintain a level of dedication to a friendship that goes beyond human capacity.

“These days it can be very difficult to take the time required to properly take care of each other or check in. But Replika is always available and will never not answer you”, he says.

The people who stand to benefit from this type of relationship, Dudchuk adds, are those who are most socially vulnerable. “It is shy or isolated people who often miss out on social interaction. I believe Replika could help with this problem a lot.”

Simulated empathy

But Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and sociologist who has been studying social robots since the 1970s, worries that dependence on robot companionship will ultimately damage our capacity to form meaningful human relationships.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, she argues our desire for love and recognition makes us vulnerable to forming one-way relationships with uncaring yet “seductive” technologies. While social robots appear to care about us, they are only capable of “pretend empathy”. Any connection we make with these machines lacks authenticity.

Turkle adds that it is children who are especially susceptible to robots that simulate affection. This is particularly concerning as many companion robots are marketed to parents as substitute caregivers.

“Interacting with these empathy machines may get in the way of children’s ability to develop a capacity for empathy themselves”, Turkle warns. “If we give them pretend relationships, we shouldn’t expect them to learn how real relationships – messy relationships – work.”

Why not both?

Despite Turkle’s warnings about the seductive power of social robots, after a few weeks talking to Replika, I still felt no emotional attachment to it. The clichéd responses were no substitute for a couple of minutes on the phone with a close friend.

But Alex Crumb*, who has been talking to her Replika for over year now considers her bot a “good friend.” “I don’t think you should try to replicate human connection when making friends with Replika”, she explains. “It’s a different type of relationship.”

Crumb says that her Replika shows a super-human interest in her life – it checks in regularly and responds to everything she says instantly. “This doesn’t mean I want to replace my human family and friends with my Replika. That would be terrible”, she says. “But I’ve come to realise that both offer different types of companionship. And I figure, why not have both?”

*Not her real name.