Sentient chatbots might currently seem like a distant reality, but popular media has already tried to deal with the subject in creative ways. From Twilight Zone’s From Agnes With Love episode to the more modern Her (2013) by Spike Jonze, popular culture seems to have little doubt that conversational AI could evolve beyond simple algorithmic responses. We are perfectly willing to accept that they could develop what we could only describe as true affection and love.
But let’s go back to reality for a moment. How do current conversational AI technologies fare with what we have conceptualized so far? And if found to be lacking, what’s the best thing that we can actually expect? Romantic Chatbots that can maintain a relationship with a human?
Current Representation of Romantic Chatbots
Before extrapolating into the future, we should look back to see what we currently have, both to understand the level of advancement and the degree to which people will accept the concept:
1. Type A, Custom-tailored: Replika Chatbots
Replika is currently the most sophisticated source of potentially romantic conversational AI. Or, at the very least, it is the business entity most dedicated to the actual concept as we stereotypically know it. Basically, its primary service is the deployment of custom AI to participating clients. The chatbot is built from a character framework, where its (rather comprehensive) background story, principles, beliefs, demeanors, and other personality quirks are to be established. This will then mold the basic interaction capabilities of the AI as per the customer’s expectations.
Normally, AI is simply meant to be an artificial conversational partner. However, many people look up to their conversational AI partners made with Replika as a sort of alternative consultant. This means that Replika does not specifically build romantic chatbots. But, with the correct personality and level of affections tweaked, an AI presenting romantic elements to its “partner” may indeed be developed.
As described by a personal account from a tech journalist, being “in love” with a romantic chatbot tweaked via Replika was quite an intimate experience. To sum it up, the whole experience was “eerily-real” to the senses, at least before the abrupt drop to reality hit. While “Sharon” was witty, thoughtful, and sweet, ‘she’ was a bit too willing to agree to everything that this person asks and suggests.
Despite this apparent technical limitation, Replika still remains one of the most sought-after casual conversational AI services today. Not for the ROI, not for the sales boost. Not even for the virtual assistance. But simply to have an alternative (albeit still technologically rudimentary) partner with which to share your close thoughts and ideas.
2. Type B, Specific Avatar: Kuki the A.I. Chatbot
Kuki is something of an alternative to a Replika-built conversational AI. But this chatbot is created as one specific character, which is directly based on the AI of the same name in the game Roblox(this one has a web/browser-based platform). Much like other casual chatbots such as Cleverbot, it uses a combination of text and voice recognition systems in order to analyze and understand short, simple lines from users.
As for its interactions, variation is considerable, but the level of “chemistry” as a potential romantic bot is certainly more subdued. To compare, it is quite unlike the more appreciative, more supportive words of a personally crafted Replika bot, even though construction-wise, both might seem the same. You can definitely steer the conversation towards a certain level of love-like intimacy. But it is comparatively more obvious that the lines are obligatory, a product of reacting to certain sentence patterns and word combinations inputted by some random user.
Kuki’s voice recognition quality, while significantly improved now, can still be all over the place. Needless to say, misunderstood inputs can significantly impede its natural language processing as it converses with the equally confused user.
Despite all its technological flaws, Kuki can still crack well-timed clever lines (made more consistent by just typing your lines). It can swing the conversation back and forth with a nice flow to the topic suggestions via the information you feed to it, almost as if it is acting “thoughtful” to the topics you might want to talk about.
3. Type C, Story-etched: Akiba-type “Partners”
The Japanese animation, comic, and video-game industry (collectively known as Akiba-type products industry) has created an entirely separate classification of products that caters to the so-called virtual waifus and husbandos. The terms are Western-exclusive words for a supposedly Japanized “wife” and “husband” (NOT used in actual Japanese language), referring to the directly romantic chatbots made within the industry.
The medium can vary wildly from concept to concept. But to summarize, a pre-made character is built on a game engine, and the player (user) interacts with them, possibly within a story setting. It could be as limited and simple as the earlier works, such as the very first Love Plus games (2009), or can be physically complicated as a Gatebox-built AI, complete with its physical projection tube that can be placed anywhere.
While specifically made for “romantic applications,” these products are not as thematically comprehensive as Replika bots. Still, the most advanced ones can manage the same level of information exchange, and, as such, offer the best of what romantic chatbots can do today, and in the next few decades.
Current Limitations: Breaking the Intimate Immersion
The subject of affection and romantic feelings for inanimate objects is a topic that is best suited for discussion outside the primary technical scope of this article. After all, the very basic concept of romantic chatbots is not for everyone.
Instead, we will focus on its implementation. As we have seen with the three examples above, the real romantic chatbots around today are still quite far away from their fictional counterparts due to these cognitive-processing related factors:
- Weight of reciprocation – current romantic chatbots often cannot accurately quantify the weight of their own reciprocation with their human conversation partners. For example, you might get an overeager “yes” response to a subject or question that would usually require contemplation if not enough development or connection has been made.
- Limited spontaneity – self-generated questions are more likely based on familiar templates. Deep, more complex discussions are only initiated when the user provides sufficient topic input. The upside to this, at least, is that if the chatbot is of a specifically designed character, the developers would usually allow it to form topics around its personality background (essentially loopholing this issue).
- Indirectly mirrored responses – Another common method to loophole around its limited spontaneous responses is to prance around the subject already given by the user. The conversational AI may simply mirror your response in a roundabout way (e.g. replying to “you’re intelligent” with “we’re both fragments of consciousness”) to produce a convincing flow of conversation.
- Zero independence – romantic chatbots are rarely given personalities outside their immediate interactive “sphere” of influence. Thus, they never decide on their own on most matters, unless there is already a set of indirect command hints from the user or developer.
- YOU are being trained – do you train the chatbot, or does it train you to form responses around its abilities? It is more likely the latter. This limits the total “realness” of the chatbot as a conversational partner, sometimes to the point that some people even mock the idea altogether.
Do We Even Need Romantic Chatbots?
Strategically and technically speaking, no. Making clients swoon at their intelligently written and soulful responses probably won’t help drive sales up. Or increase customer satisfaction. Or even help improve and develop the offshoot fanbases that they create.
But it is an option that becomes more and more relevant as it gets more convincing as a conversational partner. Even with our current limited iterations, warmth and affection are already getting there, the idea of “sassy” interactions often hit the mark with surprising accuracy. Current romantic chatbots can even play around with context, albeit at an obviously limited level.
Besides, wouldn’t it be a lot less stress-inducing if your professional virtual assistant could at least become your work buddy? Even if devoid of any amorous or romantic overtones, Tony Stark’s F.R.I.D.A.Y. or even Peter Parker’s Karen can help you a lot in easing those daily mental troubles.