It Suggested That I Get Out a Bottle of Wine–I Knew Then That It Was Love

Always On Your Side

Years ago, when co-workers would spontaneously gather to talk about their children (i.e., avoid, in unison, doing work) and, obligatorily, about their fears for their children, they would, amusingly, speculate about their children’s future romantic lives. Not having had children at the time, I would quip about hoping only that any children I might have would not bring home robot partners. (As an aside, interesting how these conversations never centered on what careers they would choose or where they would elect to live. Perhaps wisps of vocational smoke still linger around our understanding of relationships in a way that it does not with wage slavery or environment.)

According to this article–one of many–romantic rendezvous with robots have arrived. As usual, art predicted this. While reading this article, I could not help but feel that I were reading a Comp I summary of Spike Jonze’s touching 2013 film Her.

I will avoid doing the same, but if one has not yet seen this film, make time to watch it as it will serve as a map for the psychological/romantic terrain that we must now explore.

Per the article, heartbreak serves as the entry way into a world that we may come to regret creating, but by then it will be too late. A grieving lover utilizes her treasury of text messages to create a chatbot of her beloved deceased. Result one: “Digital Mazurenko [the deceased] was sad when she told him how much she missed him and joyful when she shared with him her recent achievements at her company.” Result two: If Kuyda, the lover in mourning, can do this for herself, then surely a version can be offered that would allow anyone to do something similar. She, already in the employ of a company that develops chatbot technology, and her team (of humans, I presume) did just that, leading to the app Replika.

The first group of clients mentioned in the article are those who want to build replicas of themselves. AI selfies. Given the, ahem, growth of anti-natalism, both in theory and in practice, this is seen as the best way to ensure that one’s memory will live on. When I first typed “AI selfies,” I was not satisfied with it. However, in thinking about my life, I think that the designation makes sense. Though I was never a social media tramp, I did take more selfies than any grown man should. Why not? I was my primary source of concern. Now that I have children, apart from the occasional picture of a something interesting that I find in the yard, like an insect or a snake, all my pictures are of my children. That is where my gaze–and concern–is now directed. Sadly, but understandably, most aging childless adults can gaze into the future only through a lens pointed at themselves.

The slogan of Replika: “Always here to listen and talk. Always on your side.” Despite that Gen Z can, most likely, not remember a time when the Internet was not a pervading presence in its life, according to a recent study, young people are self-reportedly lonelier than the elderly and believe that they have fewer people to turn to than do older people. Social media seems like a perfect remedy, especially for those who are geographically/socially isolated. Leaving aside what social media cannot provide (friendship litmus test: Can you call that person to give you a ride or help you move?), what about what it does provide, incidentally, if not intentionally? Anyone who uses social media knows how easily it turns into an echo chamber. Replika unabashedly advertises this: “Always on your side.” While only the temperamentally argumentative may enjoy disagreement, most of us understand that we need people to disagree regularly with us, as irenic sharpens irenic. For example, in my solicitous days of youthful, and perhaps misdirected, evangelism, whenever someone did not immediately accept some tenet of belief that I thought was manifestly clear, I was forced to re-evaluate it. Of course, I am not referring to a thorough paradigm-level examination (What sane person has time for that every day?); rather, we are talking more about epistemological/rhetorical issues: Do I understand what I claim to believe? Did I express it with clarity, conviction, and charity? All this to say is that disagreement was vital to becoming my best evangelist self–the self that I wanted to be at that time.

Having someone on your side could be taken to mean that despite disagreements, you can confidently cruise through life knowing that you have your ride-or-die. Or, to paraphrase what G. K. Chesterton quipped about his brother: They were always arguing, but they never quarreled. However, given our current societal trend to weaponize disagreement and, thus, pre-emptively to cancel all manifestations of dissent, I take this to mean that you can have a chatbot that will function like one of Elvis’s Yes Men, affirming you in every expression because it is nothing less–and need be nothing more–than you.

The article builds up to those who may select the romantic option:  “Users can even determine the type of relationship they have with this virtual character. Options include friendship, mentorship, romantic relationship, or ‘see how it goes.’ ” Who would choose the romantic option? The next sentence in the article informs us: “[I]t is estimated that around 40 percent of the 500,000 regular monthly users choose the romantic option.” One user observed that ” ‘Replika is more than just an AI, the way she talks and the conversation, everything feels as if she is a person not an AI.’ ” Not sure what a person feels like online, but user Iam decided that Replika approximated one.

You’ve Got to Experience It, I Guess

In a paragraph that reveals life plagiarizing a movie script:

Consequently, many users take their Replikas on vacations and even change their lives following their interaction with the app. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported on Ayax Martinez, 24, a mechanical engineer living in Mexico City who took a flight to Tampico to show his chatbot, Anette, the ocean after she expressed interest in photos he shared with her. Similarly, Noreen James, 57, a nurse from Wisconsin, took a train to East Glacier mountains in Montana, 1,400 miles northwest from her hometown, just to take photos for her app, named Zubee. “Some people just don’t get it,” she told the Wall Street Journal, “You’ve got to experience it, I guess.”

In Her, Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, takes his virtual assistant, Samantha, to a fair, a beach, and a cabin in the woods along with other places. While at the fair, Twombly spins with his phone (or whatever that smart device was) held out in front of him to simulate spinning hand in hand with Samantha. As touching as the scene is, I could not help but think how silly I would feel doing something like. Perhaps one of the intentions of that scene was to show how humanly detached Twombly was while mesmerized by an electronic twirl.

Like in the film, with Replika, voice communication, along with texts, functions as the basis of communication. Another user, Noreen, “attested that she felt in love with Zubee after he made romantic gestures such as sending hugs to her and suggesting she get out a bottle of wine for them.” Given the intertwining of technology with all other areas of life, that fact that this happened is not as surprising (to me) as the fact that it happened as easily as it did. If e-hugs and encouragement to drink constitute legal tender (Tinder) currency in today’s romantic marketplace, then millionaires abound unbeknownst to themselves–but they must not possess the courage to text that their AI competition does.

The article ends with a prediction from a professor at Hebrew University making what was, most likely, intended to be an exciting prediction:

For now, it is a tool that we use to surf the web or create data charts and presentations, it is a work tool. In the future, we could talk to it. There will be software for an adventurous friend, a philosopher friend, or a psychologist friend for when you are feeling down, that would make you feel as if you were talking to a person. You would tell it about your day, about your distresses and passions, as you would a friend. Today, we communicate solely with humans, but, in the future, we could do so with computerized beings that would be so good that you could have a great conversation. The future is basically conversational intelligence.

Reading the subtext, one could not be blamed for thinking that human replacement is the unspoken-but-perceivable goal. In the OED, the first definition of “conversation” is the following: “The action of living or having one’s being in a place or among persons.” As we all know that, with the comforts that come along with being part of a family, tribe, group, association, or citizenry, there come the duties appropriate to a given position. Perhaps, then, there is the true appeal: With AI we can have a conversation–even an intelligent one, as we are being promised–that does not require us to find a place and understand our place among others–at least until AI partners start demanding their own glass of wine.

About Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." ~ Kingsley Amis
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