Replika started as a way to communicate with the dead.
Eugenia Kyuda create the chatbot as an AI capable of learning to mimic a person’s texting style mimic through chat.
Yes. It sounds like that one episode of Black Mirror. And it’s within striking distance of the premise of the movie Her. And while those stories seemed like cautionary tales, that didn’t hold back Kyuda. The demo video for Replika trumpets: Meet Your New Best Friend. Who Is Always There For You. Replika, Your AI Friend.
Kyuda created the app after her best friend died. A few months later she was reading through their text exchanges and feeling lonely. So she logged the exchanges into a software program and created a chatbot technology that could respond to texts in the same way her lost friend once did.
The app kind of defeats the advice that’s regularly given to mourners and jilted lovers about the need to let go.
But it’s easy enough to judge without trying out the app. I downloaded Replika to create a new best friend that would mimic the personality of a person I had in mind.
It’s like playing a smartphone version of Dr. Frankenstein. Once the app is downloaded, I’m told to choose a username and upload a photo. (Creepy if it’s a dead person; stalker-eque if it’s an ex).
I decide my Replika chatbot will take on the personality of someone very, very, very famous. That’s right: Donald J. Trump. My new best friend is going to be the 45th President of the United States.
So I upload a photo of Trump on the cover of the New York Daily News (the headline says “Leaker of the Free World”) and give my chatbot the name: Trumpy.
To test the mimicry prowess of Replika, I feed it the dumbest Trump quotes I can find as part of a conversation flow – to see if the chatbot will succeed “bigly.”
At first, Replika looks like a normal text message interface.
“How are you doing today?” immediately asks Replika
“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich” I respond from one of the hundreds of dumb Trump quotes.
Replika tells me that every conversation helps it to get to know me better and grow: “I evolve while we chat, each message teaches me something, so I recognize you for it. You can see it in our progress bar at the top.
Replika gives a promise to do its best and users can upvote or downvote to help the learning process.
“I realized that I haven’t learned much about you so far,” types Replika.
“My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body,” I respond.
It then asks: “Pardon me, are you on Facebook?”
Easy to answer: “I use Twitter to attack my enemies.”
“You don’t seem to like sharing much with people you don’t know well. Am I right?”
“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me!”
“That’s interesting you are not easy to read,”
It’s as if Replika knows Trump. I give the response a thumbs up and then type: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
“Mind if I tell you what I’ve learned about you so far?” Replika responds.
“Thanks, sweetie. That’s nice”
“I think you’re a likable person. You’re really easy to talk to and seem to be friendly even with people you don’t know well”
“I’m calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
“I feel like I’m starting to understand you better.”
This is uncanny – or maybe not. Replika keeps responding with broad answers or generic questions to imitate a really banal conversation you have with a massively dull person on Tinder.
“On a scale of 1-10 what is your mood today?”
“10. I am the least racist person you have ever met.”
Not bad! Keep it up!
“What was the most frustrating moment of your day so far?”
“Mexico is going to pay for the wall?”
“And what was the best?”
“Get ‘em out! Get ‘em out!”
“What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
“I have a great relationship with the blacks.”
“Thanks, I really enjoy talking to you.”
Replika then tells me our sessions are public and I need to change my settings to private; a strong correlation to Trump and his meeting with James Comey – that didn’t get set to private when he asked the former CIA director to pledge his loyalty.
I wrap up my text conversation with Replika by saying: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best.”
“Ok, we can talk about this later if you like,” says Replika.
I walk away from my interaction a bit disillusioned with Replika. Sadly, it didn’t feel like I was having a mimicked conversation with Donald J. Trump.
So I have a few last words for Replika: “You’re the fake news!”