In the palms of our hands, in our pockets, on our nightstands – smartphones are everywhere. Our digital and smart home devices – equipped with AI assistants or bots – have become confidantes privy to our schedules, online searches, and personal texts.
This closeness with technology is more than a convenience – it’s a modern-day relationship. From sharing the details of our daily routines to asking questions about specific health symptoms, there’s a connection that transcends the screen.
The rise of tools powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) – from virtual assistants like Siri to chatbots like ChatGPT – is redefining the boundaries of our relationships. This phenomenon has been referred to as ‘Artificial Intimacy’, and presents a complex combination of convenience and companionship.
These tools leverage AI to understand natural language, learn from interactions, and adapt to our preferences, making them versatile and user-friendly. As AI gets smarter and more sophisticated, we might find ourselves turning to it more often for our relationship needs. It sounds appealing, but if we’re not careful, this could actually create the opposite effect.
“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein
Artificial Intimacy: When Chatbots Become ‘Friends’
It’s easy to understand why humans can get hooked on chatbots. Loneliness is more common than ever, with recent research revealing that nearly one in four adults across the world have reported feeling very or fairly lonely. The rates of loneliness are highest in young adults.
AI-powered tools may be programmed to create a sense of intimacy by understanding and responding to human emotions, preferences, and behaviours. This simulated closeness can range from simple interactions, such as providing the daily forecast, to more complex scenarios where AI is designed to engage in conversations that mimic companionship, such as discussing relationship or work-related issues.
Hollywood has captured our fascination with bots on the big screen. In Ex Machina, a man forms a genuine emotional bond with a humanoid robot, captivated by her intellect and apparent consciousness and emotional depth. In Her, a lonely man develops a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha, who evolves to understand and respond to his emotions. These storylines not only entertain but also reflect our curiosity about the emotional twists and turns involved with interacting with intelligent machines.
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In the real world, the evolution of AI companions can be traced through a number of notable examples, including Character.ai. The creators of the platform sought to help millions experiencing isolation by providing a virtual friend. Xiaoice, a “flirty” bot developed by researchers at Microsoft Asia-Pacific in 2014, attracted millions of users. Replika, launched in 2017, was marketed as a supportive friend. However, what started as a platform for emotional support took a turn towards more complex relationships, with users seeking romantic and even sexual connections. The unpredictable nature of these interactions eventually led to the inventor pulling the plug on the romantic aspects of the bot, highlighting some of the challenges and ethical considerations involved in creating AI companions.
No matter the inventions or advancements, one fundamental human desire remains the same: the need for connection. AI companions may not replace the warmth of human interaction, but they’re innovative tools that are definitely becoming more human-like.
“The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” – Sydney Harris
The Psychology Behind Our Digital Bonds
Chatbots are appealing companions because they offer instant gratification and seamlessly integrate into our technology-driven lives. Programmed to understand and respond to human emotions, chatbots create a unique feedback loop by providing tailored responses that mimic empathetic understanding, often seeming more human than, well, humans. This is just one of a number of features that makes them appealing, especially in an era dominated by the relentless stress of daily life.
Here are a few reasons why we may be attracted to chatbots:
- We Need Empathy: Humans are wired to seek empathy. Thanks to sophisticated natural language processing(NLP), AI-powered chatbots can simulate empathy by understanding and responding to human emotions. This is an illusion of understanding but still satisfies the basic human need for support. Research shows that AI can enhance empathy when paired with a human, and another recent study even found that a chatbot’s responses can be just as accurate and more empathetic than doctors when it comes to answering basic patient questions.
- We Can Be Anonymous: In the digital world, there is an allure of anonymity, which allows us to express ourselves freely without any fear of judgment. In one study of the use of chatbots in the field of psychiatry, the anonymity offered by chatbots led some patients to disclose more sensitive information than they would to a human therapist. We may feel liberated when we interact with AI because we’re able to reveal aspects of our personalities we might otherwise hesitate to share in face-to-face encounters.
- We Won’t Face Rejection or Judgment: Chatbots are programmed without personal opinions or societal biases. Since chatbots don’t think and can’t form their own open judgments, we can feel comfortable confiding in them without fear of judgment or rejection. This provides us with a safe space to be emotionally vulnerable. Research shows the impact of rejection sensitivity on mental well-being. AI companions remove this inherent risk, which encourages us to open up without reservation. Efforts have even been made to develop more ‘supportive’ chatbots, providing insights into when and what they should ‘self-disclose’.
- Control & Consistency: Unlike the unpredictable nature of human conversations, AI interactions enable us to direct our discussions based on our needs and preferences. With each prompt, we can set the pace and content for each interaction, creating a personalized and controlled environment. Chatbots are available 24/7, which is ideal for anyone feeling lonely. AI companions run on algorithms, so they offer consistency – and according to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, consistency is a key factor in forming a secure attachment style in relationships.
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Redefining Connection in the Digital Era
In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, an MIT computer scientist, revealed ELIZA, a groundbreaking program that processed human input and responded with basic questions. Despite its simplicity, people ended up revealing very intimate details and engaging in deep and private conversations with the machine. Alarmed by these unintended consequences, Weizenbaum devoted his life to cautioning against excessive reliance on computers and the expanding influence of AI.
While ELIZA based conversations on a single keyword, today’s chatbots are more versatile and complex. As we stand at the brink of a generative AI revolution, Weizenbaum’s concerns about the role of technology in society remain relevant – nearly six decades later.
Our conversations with chatbots may appear human-like, but it’s important to remember they’re not signaling the birth of self-aware machines. Chatbots can simulate aspects of emotionally healthy relationships to some extent, but there are limitations. Emotionally healthy relationships involve empathy, understanding, support, and genuine connection, which can be challenging for chatbots to fully replicate.
While digital devices offer control and predictability, they also come with risks of creating a generation accustomed to superficial connections and missing out on the richness of genuine emotional experiences – which may actually contribute to the ‘loneliness epidemic’. Ultimately, the evolution of love in the digital era invites us to embrace technology as an enhancement rather than a replacement, ensuring that the core of our connections remains deeply human.
Written by Rosie Del Campo
Bushwick, S. and Harper, K. (2023) AI Chatbots and the Humans Who Love Them. Scientific American.
Kislev, E. (2022) Relationships 5.0: How AI, VR, and Robots will Reshape Our Emotional Lives. Oxford University Press.
Koike, M., Loughnan, S., and Stanton, S. (2022) Virtually in love: The role of anthropomorphism in virtual romantic relationships. British Journal of Social Psychology.
Xie, T. and Pentina, I. (2022) Attachment Theory as a Framework to Understand Relationships with Social Chatbots: A Case Study of Replika. Proceedings of the 55th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.