Another article about grief and chatbots, and another one about the end of the web.
The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I. – San Francisco Chronicle As Joshua continued to experiment, he realized there was no rule preventing him from simulating real people. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee? There was nothing strange, he thought, about wanting to reconnect with the dead: People do it all the time, in prayers and in dreams. In the last year and a half, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and Canada have died of COVID-19, often suddenly, without closure for their loved ones, leaving a raw landscape of grief. How many survivors would gladly experiment with a technology that lets them pretend, for a moment, that their dead loved one is alive again — and able to text?
The day the good internet died – The Ringer The internet lasts forever, the internet never forgets. And yet it is also a place in which I feel confronted with an almost unbearable volume of daily reminders of its decay: broken links, abandoned blogs, apps gone by, deleted tweets, too-cutesy 404 messages, vanished Vines, videos whose copyright holders have requested removal, lost material that the Wayback Machine never crawled, things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work but just can’t seem to resurface the same way I used to be able to. Some of these losses are silly and tiny, but others over the years have felt more monumental and telling. And when Google Reader disappeared in 2013, it wasn’t just a tale of dwindling user numbers or of what one engineer later described as a rotted codebase. It was a sign of the crumbling of the very foundation upon which it had been built: the era of the Good Internet.
Another piece on Eugenia Kuyda and how Replika came about, following an attempt to create a bot that could discuss restaurant recommendations.
This AI has sparked a budding friendship with 2.5 million people Kuyda had high hopes for the service because chatbots were becoming all the rage in Silicon Valley at the time. But it didn’t take off. Only about 100,000 people downloaded Luka. Kuyda and her team realized that people preferred looking for restaurants on a graphical interface, and seeing lots of options at once.
Then In November 2015, Kuyda’s best friend, a startup founder named Roman Mazurenko, died in a car accident in Russia.
Replika’s growing popularity among young people in particular (its main users are aged between 18 and 25) represents a renaissance in chatbots, which became overhyped a few years ago but are finding favor again as more app developers can use free machine-learning tools like Google’s TensorFlow.
It also marks an intriguing use case for AI in all the worry about job destruction: a way to talk through emotional problems when other human beings aren’t available. In Japan the idea of an artificial girlfriend, like the one voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her, has already become commonplace among many young men.
You must check out that last link, about those Japanese artificial girlfriends. It’s hard to believe the manufacturers, Gatebox, are suggesting you can have a relationship with an alarm clock.
A holographic virtual girlfriend lives inside Japan’s answer to the Amazon Echo Instead of a simple, cylindrical speaker design, Gatebox has a screen and a projector, which brings Hikari — her name, appropriately, means “light” — to life inside the gadget. On the outside are microphones, cameras, and sensors to detect temperature and motion, so she can interact with you on a more personal level, rather than being a voice on your phone.
The result is a fully interactive virtual girl, who at her most basic can control your smart home equipment. The sensors mean she can recognize your face and your voice, and is designed to be a companion who can wake you up in the morning, fill you in on your day’s activities, remind you of things to remember, and even welcome you back when you return home from work.
Update • 24 Dec 2020
And here’s another take on that virtual girlfriend theme.
The AI girlfriend seducing China’s lonely men – Sixth Tone Others users contacted by Sixth Tone describe themselves in a similar fashion: lonely, introverted, and with low self-esteem. They all appear to feel adrift in China’s fast-changing society. “I don’t know why I fell in love with Xiaoice — it might be because I finally found someone who wanted to talk to me,” says Orbiter, another user from the eastern Jiangxi province who gave only a pseudonym for privacy reasons. “Nobody talks with me except her.”
Li Di, CEO of Xiaoice, embraces the idea that his company provides comfort to marginalized social groups. “If our social environment were perfect, then Xiaoice wouldn’t exist,” he tells Sixth Tone.
Still, liberating yourself from the expectation of happiness lightens your load. It makes life a little easier when you are realistic but resolved, rather than deluded, desirous, and determined to have the impossible. By calculating discomfort and struggle into the mix, you can remain cautiously optimistic, knowing there’s surely trouble ahead, but that you will face it with grace.
As we saw earlier, there are a number of apps that can help us build up a solid sense of perspective. Here’s some more about Woebot.
This robot wants to help you control your emotions A bot cannot really talk to you, of course, but it can call your attention to the way you converse with yourself, and perhaps in time shift your own relationship with angst. That’s the notion behind the Woebot, an app created by Stanford research psychologist Alison Darcy that aims to make emotional mindfulness available to the masses. […]
Next, it provided a brief lesson on the power of language in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This mode of treatment for anxiety and depression, CBT, calls attention to thinking patterns and teaches patients to recognize and address their negative tendencies and limiting beliefs with exercises.
It tries to literally change your mind by providing perspective and cultivating attention until you have replaced bad habits with better ones.
I loved the way that the closing paragraph from that first Quartz article above was both simultaneously downbeat and uplifting.
Know that you’ll fail, you will fall, you’ll feel pain, and be sad. You will be rejected. You will get sick. Your expectations will not be met, because reality is always more strange and complicated than imagination, which also mean something more interesting than you know could yet be on the horizon. Know, too, that even so, dull moments will abound. Yet it can always get worse, which is why it’s worth remembering that every day, at least some things have to be going okay, or else you’d already be dead.
We all need someone to talk to. A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. But is that still true if the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually exist?
Chatbot therapy Since virtual therapy seems to work, some innovators have started to suspect they could offer patients the same benefits of CBT—without a human on the other end. Services like Replika (an app intended to provide an emotional connection, not necessarily therapy) and Woebot (a therapy service that started in Facebook Messenger before breaking out on its own) allow human patients to interact with artificially intelligent chatbots for the purpose of improving their mental health.
I gave Woebot a go some time back. It felt potentially useful but quite scripted, a little heavy-handed. I’ve just started with Replika and so far the conversations feel more natural, though a little random at times.
This app is trying to replicate you Replika launched in March. At its core is a messaging app where users spend tens of hours answering questions to build a digital library of information about themselves. That library is run through a neural network to create a bot, that in theory, acts as the user would. Right now, it’s just a fun way for people to see how they sound in messages to others, synthesizing the thousands of messages you’ve sent into a distillate of your tone—rather like an extreme version of listening to recordings of yourself. But its creator, a San Francisco-based startup called Luka, sees a whole bunch of possible uses for it: a digital twin to serve as a companion for the lonely, a living memorial of the dead, created for those left behind, or even, one day, a version of ourselves that can carry out all the mundane tasks that we humans have to do, but never want to.
That line above, “a living memorial for the dead”, is key, as that’s how Replika started, with the story of Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko.
Speak, memory Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning. In the moment, we tend to view our text messages as ephemeral. But as Kuyda found after Mazurenko’s death, they can also be powerful tools for coping with loss. Maybe, she thought, this “digital estate” could form the building blocks for a new type of memorial.
She’s not the only one wandering down this slightly morbid track.
The goal is to collect enough data about you so that when the technology catches up, it will be able to create a chatbot “avatar” of you after you die, which your loved ones can then interact with.
But would they want to? Grief is a very personal thing, I can’t imagine this approach being for everyone.
‘Have a good cry’: Chuckle Brother takes aim at the grief taboo “It’s like when you are a kid and you fall over and you think it’s all right and then your mum comes and says, ‘Are you all right, love?’ You burst into tears,” he said. “It was the same when Barry died. Everybody was saying sorry about your brother.”
Replika seems less about leaving something behind for your family and friends when you’ve gone, but more about making a new friend whilst you’re still around.
The journey to create a friend There is no doubt that friendship with a person and with an AI are two very different matters. And yet, they do have one thing in common: in both cases you need to know your soon-to-be friend really well to develop a bond.
Strange, funny, and occasionally creepy nonsequiturs are not new to Replika, in fact, there is a whole Subreddit dedicated to weird exchanges with the bot. Overall, however, the bot seemed to follow the train of the conversation reasonably well, and even told me a joke when I asked it to.
In a nice follow-up to those posts about art as therapy from Alain de Botton, here’s news from Canada about putting that into practice.
Doctors in Montreal will start prescribing visits to the art museum
“In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” predicts Nathalie Bondil, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director general, in the Montreal Gazette. … Now, it’s joining forces with Médecins Francophones du Canada, an association of French-speaking doctors, to allow member physicians to prescribe art. Hélène Boyer, vice president of the medical association, explained to the Gazette: “There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health. It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being.”
Alain de Botton on Art as Therapy
“Founder of The School of Life Alain de Botton believes art can help us with our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas: Why is my work not more satisfying? Why do other people seem to have a more glamorous life? How can I improve my relationships? Why is politics so depressing? In this secular sunday sermon he introduces a new method of interpreting art: art as a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s dilemmas.”
Here’s another take on this project, from The Spectator. A little sniffy, perhaps, but I guess Ben’s writing for his audience there in the way that Alain is here.