Jul 10, 2020

Tell Your Troubles to Replika’s New “Chatbot”

Non-judgmental friendship’s just a click away

By Ed Goldman

First, with apologies to Carole King, here’s a slight rewrite of the refrain from her hit song “You’ve Got a Friend,” to commemorate a new interactive phone product to which you can tell your troubles:  

You just call out my name
Though you know I’m right in your hand.
Just start talking and I’ll understand.
Winter, spring, summer or fall
This won’t be a “roaming” call.
‘Cause I’m right here (this is a snap):
You’ve got my app.

Is a ‘bot in need a friend indeed? Put another way, can the new “chatbot” app, Replika, which allows you to have a real-time conversation with a non-real participant, ever replace the joy of yakking with an actual human being even if that human is occasionally duplicitous, vague, sarcastic, not always terribly interested in what you’re saying or remotely empathetic—you know, just like a real friend?   

According to a late-June story in the New York Times, you can now download a text app, and pay a little extra for the audio version, to which you can tell your troubles and receive instant feedback. While the dialogue is expected to become more spontaneous in subsequent iterations (maybe five years down the line, according to its inventors), right now you can expect almost nothing but sympathy and encouragement from your chatbot. 

I realize the product may sound like something that was assembled at Muppet Labs, possibly with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s assistant, Beaker, providing the bot’s voice. But its history is genuinely touching.

A Russian scientist and émigré, Eugenia Kuyda, invented Replika because she mightily missed her close friend, Roman Mazurenko, who died in a car accident. She used some of the texts he’d sent her to create a template for the chatbot’s way of writing. 

The Times story does point out that “Replika is not exactly a perfect conversationalist. It often repeats itself. Sometimes it spouts nonsense. When you talk to it…it sometimes sounds like a machine.” 

Which part? All those traits pretty much describe the majority of conversations I already have.

Naturally, a psychotherapist is quoted in the article. I sincerely believe there’s a short-list (or silo) of psychotherapists somewhere who exist primarily to help reporters sound like we know what we’re talking about when we write science-related pieces. Anyway, this one, Laura Glusman McAllister in Raleigh, North Carolina, warns that Replika may not be much of a true friend. “If it is just telling you what you want to hear, you are not learning anything,” she says.

Okay, time for me to demonstrate anew just how superficial I can be, and with very little effort. 

When I’m upset about something, I really don’t want to call a dear friend so I can “learn” something. I want to hear that whatever has happened in my life was not my fault, that I’m a terrific person, and that someday the world may catch up to my greatness. 

If I want to “learn” something, I’ll follow the most frequent advice of the original Dear Abby: “Seek professional help.” Or I’ll go online and see if anyone else has ever been bedeviled by what’s bedeviling me. Or I’ll buy a book, or pray, or meditate or go for a very long walk—the latter so that when I return home exhausted, with shin splints and sneezing from allergies, I won’t recall what I was so upset about. 

In fact, at that point I may just pick up my phone and ask my chatbot to join me for a martini. That’s what friends are for.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).