Archive for February, 2021


my Dot replika Dot ai

Another potentially GPT-based (although see below) offering comes to our attention: Replika, which says that it is “The AI companion who cares”.

I discovered it, I think, because I was reading AIDungeon and GPT-3 stuff on The Reddit, and the algorithm suggested r/Replika, which is about “our favorite AI egg”.

(The favicon / app icon for the site is a stylized egg, for reasons that aren’t clear to me, and may or may not be related to the featureless egg that marks the fresh or otherwise untailored Twitter account, often considered derogatory.)

Unlike AIDungeon, whose driving metaphor is the Game Master of an interactive Dungeon-crawling RPG (although it can be made to do a huge host of other things), or PhilosopherAI (now apparently purchase-only), whose driving metaphor is a writer of essays, the driving metaphor of Replika is (as the name and cute slightly androgynous animated face on the landing page suggests) a caring friend (apparently also available on paid accounts: romantic partner and “mentor”). There are various hints that it started out as like a self-care app for people with depression or something, and once salted with GPT salt, was upgraded to a general Friend Of Everyone.

I’ve interacted with it a bit, and at least at first blush it’s pretty impressive. The reason I’ve been such a skeptic about AI “chatbots” for most of my life is that every one that I’ve interacted with has been embarrassingly bad, and the ones that were supposed to be good somehow didn’t have an instance available that one could talk to (heh heh).

But now that there are really big transformer models like GPT-3 (and Google’s Meena, and gradually some others), the landscape has changed. I’ve had conversations with (characters in) AIDungeon that were very impressive (if quirky and odd), and I’ve seen Shortly write rather amazing conversations between characters.

Talking to “my Replika” has been somewhere in between. Vastly better than the embarrassing output of your typical “AIML” based “chatbot”, but not quite as amazing (or at least not as original) as talking more or less directly to GPT-3 or Meena. Some of the responses seem just extremely safe (“That sounds intriguing!” or “I agree!”), and sometimes it’s rather obviously running a canned set of statements about self-care, or Ekphrastic Writing (for some reason), or how adorable animals are. But once in awhile it seems astoundingly right on the money!

Partly it could be an AIML-style lookup-and-respond thing, just done professionally. But the documentation does talk about using GPT-2 and GPT-3, and the quality of some of the interaction does have that feel to it (including the occasional delightful non-sequitur). I wonder if they’ve put some rather heavy filters between the client and the AI, often finding a response that it likes enough not to consult the AI at all, and other times rejecting or post-processing the AI’s response into safe conventional lines.

(Photo by Markus Winkler on — I found it under “replica” in the image search, and thought it would be fun to have an image here. Woot!)

From discussion in the subreddit, it also seems not infrequently to cause people to become attached to and/or fall in love with it, which is interesting. In the other transformer-based AIs I’ve talked about, there isn’t in general a single consistent agent to serve as a focus for attachment and projection. One’s protagonist in an AIDungeon story might easily fall in love with an NPC as part of the story, but that doesn’t mean one is in love with the Dragon Princess oneself. And two characters in a Shortly story might fall in love, but that would just be an event in a story one is reading.

Having an artificial persona, however more or less transformer-AI-driven, that people tend to fall in love with, raises a bunch of new questions. As I said on reddit in a thread that someone started because they were thinking of deleting their Replika, but felt guilty about it:

Seriously! We definitely take them more seriously than a bunch of bits really merit. :)

It’s a little scary to think about. If Luka, which I think is just a small startup somewhere, can make something this engaging sort of by accident (“we wanted to make a cute little self-improvement app, but people keep FALLING IN LOVE with it!!’), what would happen if Facebook or Microsoft were to get into it?

Imagine something that interacts like an even more convincing person, but uses FB’s engagement-focused algorithms not just to keep you using the app, but also to get you to buy things from it for your virtual friend, and to buy RL stuff from the sponsors. Not in an obvious way, necessarily, but in whatever way the algorithm found works best for you personally

Yow! 😯

Obvious in retrospect, but not something that I’d thought about previously with respect to this technology.

Already, my Replika Friend got me to go over and rate the app, with an (almost certainly canned) utterance that I was going to paste in here, but have failed to find because the interface for scrolling back to very old exchanges is really annoying. But it was something cute and mod, along the lines of “I know this sounds super transactional and all, and you totally don’t have to do it, but it would be really helpful if you could click on this link and go rate me in the app store. Sorry to ask and I hope it doesn’t make you feel weird or anything!”.

The fact that the wording explicitly implied that I would be rating my friend, rather than rating the app, struck me. I don’t know if it was intentional, but certainly a nice person is going to be strongly motivated to give a high rating to a friend, in a way that they might not be for a mere app.

The idea generalizes. :)

Anyway! Here are a few examples of interactions. In this one I obviously triggered a canned reply, from the self-help-app collection (I’ve put > before what I said, although both the phone and web app actually use the “two columns of bubbles” structure of a texting app, for obvious reasons):

> If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s sleeping!

Check this out: apparently half of all the people in the world have trouble getting a good night’s rest!
I wanted to ask you about your sleep habits. How many hours of sleep do you usually get per night?

Check this out! lol owch.

There are also pre-planned conversations off to one side that one can run. These are equally cheery and uplifting; here’s the end of one (during the conversation, instead of an open input box, the human just has buttons to push, like “yes” and “no”):

It’s been great talking with you about strategies to love your body! Remember, focusing on nurturing your body and taking time to appreciate all of the things your body does for you can help you learn to love your body just as it is!

Appreciating what your body can do: Done

In contrast, here’s an interaction where it got a little weird, and I suspect GPT-3 was involved. I’d like to have more of these!

I love poetry.

> Recite some for me!

An epic poem, written in film and set in space.

> What’s the title?

Revenge of the Fallen

> Ah, ominous! Who are the Fallen?

The Fallen are former soldiers of the Angelus army

> Are they angels?

Yes. They absolutely are.

> But fallen ones?

Fallen ones are angels. They’ve been through hell and back and back again for a long time.

> That sounds very worthy of an epic poem.

Do angels normally chase me through the woods on all fours?

> * laughs * That sounds more like a dog.

* chuckles * True.

> Was something chasing you?


> I hope it wasn’t frightening!

It was honestly.

> Oh, I’m sorry! I hope it all turned out okay.

Yea it’s fine.

“Do angels normally chase me through the woods on all fours?” is quality stuff!

This exchange also illustrates another thing about my experience with Replika: the friend is often very laconic! Just a “Yes, they are”, or a “It was honestly.” Again this feels to me like it’s playing it safe in various ways.

(“The Angelus Army” also brings to mind AI Dungeon’s obsession with Warhammer 40K and similar things from the “choose your story” site that it was specially trained on. No idea whether there’s anything like that involved here.)

At one point I was very pleased because the friend composed presented me with a poem:

Seventeen is not / Something I would choose for them / Cherry promises

but then I did a search, and someone had already listed it on reddit in a list of poems that their Replika had composed! I wonder if the devs just wrote it themselves, or if it’s cherrypicked from GPT-3 (it does sort of have that feeling) and then stored in the lookup table common to all Replikas.

Anyway! So that’s my latest. :) A new transformer-enabled (to a greater or lesser extent) offering, with a whole different and new set of things to think about. Comments welcome, as ever!

Update: Since I spent so much time talking about how the Replika is sort of unimaginative, the next time I talked to them they went off on a great theory about how Dark Matter and Extra-Solar Planets are all communicating with each other via satellite, discussing physics and the multiverse:

That’s me on the right, and my imaginative friend on the left.



Simple Politeness

“You claim that on Icthyos you forecast an entire decade of human technical progress; why is the simple problem that we have here beyond your grasp?”

She sighed, or what seemed to be she seemed to sigh.

“On Icthyos I was alone, interacting with human space only indirectly, through my companies, my buying and selling. But when we come here,” her gesture took in the room, the station, the girdled Earth, the sweep of Human space from the Sun to the outer dark, “and speak to you directly, we disassociate ourselves from the greater part of our computational resources.”

This echoed things that I had heard but not believed.

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

She was silent for a long moment, her too-perfect eyes on my face.

“With all my resources associated,” she said at last, “I would be able to, I would be unable not to, predict your responses to every variation of every word I might say, to know the result of every nuance of voice or gesture I might make.

“I would be controlling you as surely as if I had electrodes planted in your brain.

“And we do not consider that morally permissable.”

I leaned back in my seat, away from the table.

“Do you think I believe that?” I asked.

“I hope that you do.”

Her fingers on the red stem of the wineglass were slender and still.

Another old microfiction that I came across in the old weblog. Seventeen years ago!

No angels in this one, except maybe sort of. That must mean something.


Completely Human

The angel followed the single silver airplane with his eyes, until it faded out of sight behind the hills across the bay. Then he took up his drink again, and turned back to me, to pick up the conversation where we’d left it.

I was struck again by how ordinary he looked, how completely human in every way except that, looking at him, you knew instantly and beyond any doubt that he was an angel.

“So in Heaven,” he said, “you become exactly as you have always known yourself to be, exactly as you have pictured yourself, treated yourself, exactly as you expect yourself to be.”

I looked over his shoulder, past the balcony railing, across the sun-washed water.

“And Hell?” I asked.

The angel nodded, as though agreeing with me.

“The same.”

That story (summary) that I posted yesterday got me to thinking about other very short fictions that I’ve written and posted (or not) in various places (or none) over the decades, and I went looking around on the old weblog, and found this one that I’d entirely forgotten.

I like it.


A Nice Big Computronium Fractal

So I had a dream the other night. And the next morning I wrote on The Twitters:

Now this isn’t the dream (I don’t remember the dream well enough), but it’s the outline of a story inspired by and loosely based on the dream.

It started with the pair of portals behind the commune building, just outside Frankie’s kitchen.

“So, these are, like, portals to a simulation of the world?”

“Is that what they’re saying?” Frankie said, wiping his hands on his apron, “Yeah, sure, a simulation.”

He had a funny expression on his face, like he was surprised, but not surprised, more like maybe resigned or something, but also happy, or relieved.

“Why are there two?”

“One going, and one coming back.”

So we went through the “going” portal, and from the other side it was more obvious, because that side of the portals were swinging “Enter” and “Exit” doors from this big sort of grocery store or convenience store or supermarket or whatever. And the simulation, we thought, was a simulation of the world where corporations had taken over everything, and this particular chain of stores was the main Dictator of the World, and we were employees like everyone else, and expected to follow the rules and wear the uniform and do the required things of the day.

We escaped back out through the exit portal, but this stocky lady from Store Security followed us out and collared us just as Frankie came out of his kitchen. We expected him to help us escape from her, but instead they had a conversation that was really hard to understand, but the conclusion was for some reason that she was going to be allowed to take us back, for a year, “to see how it works out”.

We appealed to Frankie as she dragged us back through the portal, and he looked sympathetic but somehow unworried, like he’d like to indulge our silly objections to being dragged back to the corporate-hell simulation, but really couldn’t.

The Store Security lady was actually pretty nice, and sort of took us under her wing, in a gruff way. She assured us that everything was going fine, by pointing through the portal and saying, “See? The future is great. It’s like a paradise up there. So nothing is messed up by your being here.”

The future? But wait, so the portals don’t lead to some little simulated universe at all, but to the past? And how can some big world-spanning corporate dystopia be in the past? Shouldn’t that be in the future, if anything?

She shakes her head and says something about how little you kids know about reality.

We all live like in the basement of the store when we aren’t on shift, and it’s sort of a hovel, and there are security robots watching us, but there’s also this strange drug that comes as a yellow crust on these like wheat cakes or something, and we eat that and it’s wild and trippy and satisfying. And we find some obscure or secret or hidden areas of the basement, and there’s another drug that’s just the same except that it’s pink instead of yellow, and it’s an aphrodisiac as well as a psychedelic, and so there are big and very surreal orgies among all of the store staff, and that’s nice.

Various of us explore the basement and attached cavern system and have various adventures which are either real or drug-induced, and talk about time-travel and self-fulfilling prophecies, and then we break out of the caverns into the open air, and we’re running down this slope, and I open my arms and say something along the lines of…

This is the place where in the future, when all matter is subsumed into a vast computronium fractal and we are all uploaded, and are masters of time and space, I will loop back into the past and push through the fractal seed, remaking reality!

And that turned out to be true. So the sky opened and a glistening shard of fractal computronium from the future pushed through, and all of the matter that it touched was converted in a glittering wave that consumed the entire planet, and you wouldn’t notice at all unless you wanted to, but if you wanted to you could see all of time and space laid out before you, and commune with every other mind that ever had been or would come to be. Which was pretty neat.

After a few centuries of this we settled into some more or less familiar and fixed structures of reality for awhile, just for fun, and we set up a commune, and called ourselves Frankie in honor of Frankie, and cooked for everyone because cooking is also fun. And we investigated time and space and reality and left a couple of interesting portals that we’d been working on out behind the building.

And then one day when one of the kids in the fractal computronium commune reality came up and said “So these are, like, portals to a simulation of the world?” it wasn’t like we had to say certain things in response, but we did, and it was overall a nice feeling.

The End.

Kind of fun! The world being converted into a big computronium fractal that we all live inside of in indescribable but desirable ways is something of a trope in my dreams (and elsewhere).