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.


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