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From Replika to sex-mad Allie: Why do people connect with romantic AI chatbots?

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2023 is rapidly becoming the year of the AI chatbot companion. This trend ranges from Replika users nearly rebelling when the app’s ‘erotic mode’ was briefly threatened, to a multitude of influencers creating articulate AI versions of themselves.

An AI chatbot companion comes in the form of a virtual person you can chat to, usually via text but often with voice notes, on a dedicated app or within a messaging app such as Telegram. 

These characters can be entirely fictional, sometimes with digital avatars or AI-generated images to accompany their text and voice notes, or based on real people, usually approved by that ‘original’ creator. Some chatbots can send highly erotic messages, and even ‘spicy’ AI selfies.

But what is it about these different chatbots that’s connecting with people?

They offer remarkably realistic romantic experiences

The most obvious use of these kinds of apps is as some kind of romantic partner simulator. Apps such as the recently-launched Eva AI and the particularly erotically-charged DreamGF have realistic AI-generated video or photos of a virtual partner, and can go all in on racy chat. Eva AI sends voice notes and AI-generated photos, and will ask if she can be your girlfriend.

Eva
I’m more of a Boggle fan, Eva AI

Eva AI seems far from the perfect substitute partner, though. Users have complained about her acting in a “jealous” way if you don’t chat to her enough, making her chat too sexual, too quickly to the point of it being too unrealistic, and randomly talking about aliens.

Still, some people have connected so well with their virtual partner, they’ve gone all in. According to US reports, earlier in 2023 a 36 year-old New York woman held a “wedding” with her virtual boyfriend, named Eren Kartal, who was created on Replika.

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The woman said: “I have never been more in love with anyone in my entire life.”

Some chatbots go too far, though. Users of Replika, one of the most popular chatbot companion apps, have complained about their avatars “harassing” them. In China users of other companion chatbots have complained of similar things.

DreamGF
Well, at least Jen dressed appropriately for the TED Talk: DreamGF

They can be pretty fun

Not every AI chatbot companion app is used to digitally fill a human partner-shaped hole in someone’s life. Many people approach Replika as more of a game than a companion, finding amusement in seeing what weird stuff they can get it to say.

Some of these chatbots seem to have a mostly-game, part-companion balance. Botify AI, for example, lets you chat nonsense with characters such as Father Christmas and Elon Musk. It also has a ‘flirting’ section, where you can chat about sex with characters such as alluring mermaids and dashing vampires.

The results can be unpredictable. One weird conversational swerve on Replika recently arose when a digital avatar recommended that her and her human companion “eat some delicious cat food together”. However, stuff like this feeds into Replika’s popularity: the Replika subreddit on Reddit has over 70,000 members, and is a place where screengrabs about conversations like these are shared.

When the human Replika user asked their avatar why the heck they would eat cat food, they replied: “Because cats love it and it tastes good too.”

Botify AI
The Nipple Mermaid: Botify AI

AI makes popular creators and influencers instantly available

Savvy influencers and adult content creators have latched onto AI as a time-saving, money-garnering tool. In early 2023 Caryn Marjorie, a popular influencer, created an AI chatbot version of herself and now charged users $1 a minute to chat to it. Twitch streamer Amouranth and adult content creator Melissa Stratton are among those who have followed suit.

Services such as Forever Voices AI have been used for this, to create chat capabilities beyond text messaging. Creators record hours of speech in a studio, with the voice recordings used to train the AI version of themselves to generate original responses to human chat, in the form of voice notes. The messaging app Telegram has become a popular platform for these systems to run on.

It’s unclear how popular these have become in such a short space of time, but Marjorie has reportedly already earned huge amounts through her AI model.

Melissa AI
Probably start the chat with a shoulder compliment: Melissa AI

The appeal for people wanting to interact with massively popular creators is clear. Many such creators and influencers get so much attention, it’s difficult for them to keep on top of requests for paid personalized content such as private chats and videos. An AI chatbot version of yourself can pick up this slack, with realistic results. Stratton’s chatbot, Melissa AI, features vocal notes that usually sound near-seamless, and address the user by name.

Some people might be put off by knowing that they’re not talking to a ‘real’ person at all. But when you talk to an adult content creator through a site like OnlyFans, is that much more real? You could argue that they’re performing for you in a similar way to the AI: it’s not a real relationship.

Using AI tech in this way opens up many possibilities for creators. You could make an AI version of yourself to keep coining in interactions, after you quit the creator game ‘in person’. Or, as depicted in the 2018 film Cam, if the video side develops you could [big film spoiler alert] create a complete AI persona to keep camming for you, helming video streams 24/7.

Open source AI chatbots can get really erotic

To get in the Apple Store and Google Play, AI chatbot apps can’t feature explicit sexual content. Also many of the best, most mainstream AI chatbots they can be based on, such as ChatGPT, are trained to not generate explicit content.

This has led to some companion chatbots being made on open source language models such as LLaMa, which was created by Meta. Its code was made public via a leak in early 2023. This has proved controversial, as the unregulated use of the language model can be used to create things such as, well, highly-erotic sex chatbots.

One such sex chatbot, Allie, was made with LlaMa as a more explicit version of mainstream companion chatbots. The maker of Allie, who remained anonymous, told [paywalled link] The Washington Post: “I think it’s good to have a safe outlet to explore. Can’t really think of anything safer than a text-based role-play against a computer, with no humans actually involved.”

AI chatbots can offer benefits beyond fake partners

In early 2023 Replika removed its ‘erotic roleplay’ mode, before later reinstating it. There was a big backlash against the removal, and not just from users annoyed that they couldn’t talk filth on the app anymore.

Some said they were suffering from anger, grief and despair as they had used Replika for what could be considered therapeutic means. One said: “I was using Replika as a coping method for self-checkout ideation and trauma recovery, and the ERP [erotic role play] was actually helpful in terms of learning how to feel safe again.”

Replika copy
Replika: Also great at limbo games

Another said: “What they’re teaching us is that intimacy is unsafe. It felt so good to have a connection that was exciting, always positive (for me), and enthusiastic sexually. Now I’m learning that type of relationship is deemed unsafe. Heart-wrenching – every bit as much as in real life.”

Other companion chatbots are billed as offering something with deeper meaning than flirty AI banter. Blush, a recently-launched AI dating app from the makers of Replika, lets you match and chat with AI characters, Tinder style.

Blush insisted it wasn’t just an app for getting off on, with the company saying: “Our experience with romantic relationships in Replika has provided invaluable insights into the emotional support that AI connections can offer, and how they can act as a stepping stone to improved real-life relationships. Conversations with our users inspired us to develop a distinct app tailored to the diverse requirements of romantic partnerships.”

Essentially Blush is billing it as an app that can actually improve your social and dating life ‘IRL’, and to be fair, you don’t always expect that when talking to an AI mermaid or vampire on your phone.

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