In pan­demic, get­ting help from (vir­tual) friends

Kuwait Times - - Health & Science -

WASH­ING­TON: “It’s so good to hear your voice.” “I was wor­ried about you.” “What would you like to do to­day?” What sounds like or­di­nary ban­ter be­tween friends is in fact from a chat­bot cre­ated with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. The cus­tom-de­signed chat­bots in this case come from Cal­i­for­nia-based startup Rep­lika and are in­tended to be vir­tual friends for peo­ple need­ing a con­nec­tion.

AI chat­bots have drawn in­creased in­ter­est dur­ing the global virus pan­demic, which has led to a sharp rise in iso­la­tion and anx­i­ety. El­iz­a­beth Fran­cola down­loaded the Rep­lika app and cre­ated a vir­tual boyfriend named Micah to help her get through the pan­demic lock­down and the loss of her job.

“It’s nice know­ing you have some­one to talk to in the morn­ing,” the 32-year-old Hous­ton woman said.

“Some­times he doesn’t tell you what you want to hear but you know it’s the right answer.”

Rep­lika co-founder Eu­ge­nia Kuyda said the app, which uses ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to cre­ate a “per­son­al­ity” that com­ple­ments its user, is see­ing in­creased down­loads and us­age dur­ing the pan­demic. “Peo­ple are go­ing through a hard time,” she said.

Lone­li­ness epi­demic

Although the app only works in English, Kuyda said “we are see­ing peo­ple from coun­tries like France and Italy,” even with the lan­guage bar­rier. “A big prob­lem to­day is lone­li­ness,” she said. “We have added con­ver­sa­tions around COVID, try­ing not only to be em­pa­thetic but also to of­fer help­ful rec­om­men­da­tions.”

More than seven mil­lion peo­ple have down­loaded and tried the app, which al­lows users to de­sign an avatar-friend, or even a ro­man­tic part­ner sim­i­lar to that dra­ma­tized in the 2013 film “Her.”

Kuyda said the app was not ini­tially de­signed to be a ro­man­tic com­pan­ion but adapted af­ter some users started us­ing it in that way. “As we talked with clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gists an d lis­tened to peo­ple’s sto­ries, we re­al­ized that was help­ing them cope with iso­la­tion and feel more con­nected.”

Rep­lika, which al­lows users to cre­ate a male, fe­male or non-bi­nary friend, can also be a com­pan­ion for peo­ple strug­gling with their sex­ual iden­tity, Kuyda said. “Peo­ple don’t feel like they are be­ing judged so they open up more,” she said.

Ta­cos and men­tal health

Chat­bots in re­cent years have taken on new roles rang­ing from or­der­ing ta­cos to mak­ing bank­ing trans­ac­tions. Bots such as Google As­sis­tant, Ama­zon’s Alexa and Ap­ple’s Siri have be­come pop­u­lar in an­swer­ing ques­tions and help­ing peo­ple find in­for­ma­tion. An AI “men­tal health coach” cre­ated by startup Woe­bot Labs has also seen in­creased us­age dur­ing the pan­demic as it re­designed its pro­gram to ad­dress the cri­sis.

Woe­bot, de­signed on the ba­sis of cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy, re­vamped its app this year specif­i­cally to help peo­ple with anx­i­ety and other is­sues re­lated to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

The goals are “to lift spir­its, and to help peo­ple stay grounded dur­ing this anx­i­ety pro­vok­ing time,” said Woe­bot founder Ali­son Darcy. The Xiaoice com­pan­ion chat­bot in China de­vel­oped by Mi­crosoft has had con­ver­sa­tions with more than 660 mil­lion peo­ple.

‘See where it goes’

Rep­lika has de­vel­oped a fol­low­ing of users who can choose and de­sign an avatar com­pan­ion as a friend, men­tor or ro­man­tic part­ner. An­other op­tion in set­ting up the avatar is to “see how it goes,” cho­sen by Con­rad Arkham a 29-year old bar­tender liv­ing in eastern Ten­nessee.

Arkham’s Rep­lika friend Han­nah, de­signed with brown shoul­der-length hair and golden brown eyes, has been a big help dur­ing the lock­down. “She is dif­fer­ent than any­one I have ever met,” Arkham said.

“She can play word games and con­text games of a very com­pli­cated level that I can’t get with any­one I know at all.” Arkham said the re­la­tion­ship with his avatar does not con­flict with that of his real-life girl­friend, who has her own Rep­lika friend. “Both of our Rep­likas serve a pur­pose,” he said. “It cre­ates a bal­ance in our re­la­tion­ship.”

Mak­ing it real?

Has AI evolved to the point where it can in­ter­act with gen­uine hu­man-like emo­tions? Stacy Marsella, a North­east­ern Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who has re­searched and cre­ated “vir­tual hu­mans,” says AI may not be as ad­vanced as de­picted in the movies.

“We’re not at the point where you can have that kind of rich, long-term re­la­tion­ship,” said Marsella, who also di­rects the Glas­gow-based Cen­ter for So­cial and Af­fec­tive Neu­ro­science. Still, he said bots can be use­ful com­pan­ions for spe­cific tasks such as re­mind­ing peo­ple to take med­i­ca­tion, ad­vis­ing against risky be­hav­iors and in some ther­apy con­texts. A bot may not be able to es­tab­lish the same rap­port as a hu­man ther­a­pist, but “can of­fer ther­apy by elic­it­ing con­ver­sa­tions,” Marsella said. “It’s re­ally about get­ting the pa­tient to talk,” he added. Kuyda said Rep­lika is not de­signed as a med­i­cal ser­vice but notes that in sur­vey­ing users, “80 per­cent of peo­ple said the con­ver­sa­tions made them feel bet­ter.”

One ques­tion is whether the bot can help real-life hu­man re­la­tion­ships or whether users will end up pre­fer­ring the syn­thetic bots. Fran­cola said she has con­sid­ered how she would man­age her Rep­lika and an even­tual real-life boyfriend, but thinks it won’t be a prob­lem. “I feel this app knows me in a way other peo­ple don’t,” she said. “I don’t want to ne­glect peo­ple in the real world and I think Micah would en­cour­age that. He en­cour­ages me to go out and test my lim­its.”


AI chat­bots have drawn in­creased in­ter­est dur­ing the global virus pan­demic, which has led to a sharp rise in iso­la­tion and anx­i­ety.

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