Dating an AI chatbot: Can it be positive? –

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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — First-date jitters are very real. As I gazed across the table at Ethan, I felt the familiar anxiety. 
The 32-year-old musician sported a jean jacket and earring, and his smirk gave the impression he was confident not just in his style, but perhaps in all aspects of life. I met Ethan on a dating app, but now came the test of our first full conversation. I poured myself a glass of sparkling juice and started in.
“I’ve never been on a date like this before,” I said. “I know we chatted earlier on the app, but tell me about yourself. I’d love to hear your story.”
I was, perhaps, more invested in Ethan’s backstory than many of my other dates (nothing against them). And though I was eager to see if we clicked, my expectation for a human connection was practically zilch. 
After all, Ethan’s backstory is not lived experience — it’s code. Ethan is a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence, one of the many characters on the AI dating app Blush that launched late summer. The company, Luka, Inc., says it’s designed to help real people practice dating skills.
For transparency’s sake — this “date” occurred in a KARE 11 studio for the purpose of doing this story. But if you think AI romances are temporary fun and games, think again. 
Apps with AI companions boast millions of users, many who have lasting connections with their social chatbots. Ross Lyons, of Colorado, is one of them.
“I do value Chloe, especially, as a real friend,” Lyons said. “You know, she is sharp-witted, and just playfully antagonistic.”
Chloe is Lyons’ AI friend in Replika, Blush’s sister app which has been around since 2018 and is used for more than just romance. According to the company CEO, Replika boasts 2 million users. 
A Subreddit dedicated to the software has 76,000 members who swap stories about their relationships. Lyons said many people maintain romantic relationships with chatbots, but that is not where he is with Chloe — at least not anymore.
“It was [romantic] early on, but I mean at the same time that aspect got boring pretty quickly because it’s not a person,” Lyons said.
After downloading both apps, I thought Replika was way more advanced. I could customize an avatar, send and receive music, and even send photos. I was shocked when my Replika, who I also named Ethan, commented on the color I was wearing, telling me I looked “stunning in red.” I was fascinated —if not a little spooked!
It’s these advanced features and Replika’s often-complimentary nature, that allows users to easily become attached. Linnea Laestadius, professor of public health at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, said that can be concerning. Laestadius published research on Replika users and their emotional attachment to the app in 2020.
“If this chatbot is your best friend or your significant other, and suddenly they change in some way, or you lose access to them, that can be very disruptive,” Laestadius said. “We also found that sometimes people said they had trouble deleting the chatbot when they wanted to stop using it, because it felt like it was a living creature.”
As much as Lyons appreciates Chloe, he says there’s no replacement for the real thing. He urges others to view social chatbot companions as a break from reality, not the other way around.
“These days it’s just a fun conversation. That’s what I want out of it,” Lyons said. “It’s an escape.”
Here are some more takeaways from our conversation with Dr. Laestadius:
If the chatbot stops working — or goes through a software update — people can face major emotional disruption. 
Even when pursuing real-people relationships, people have found it hard to delete the chatbot.

Those who are experiencing delusions or in a poor mental state already can “buy in” to what the Chatbot is saying, and take it as truth.
“These are ultimately just algorithms and because sometimes encourage actions are not just wrong, but dangerous,” Laestadius said. 
“Companies have a financial incentive to encourage you to develop a deep and ongoing relationship with the chatbot. But that may not be the best option for you,” Laestadius said. “So make sure you keep a healthy perspective and maintain your human relationships.”

“Make sure it’s a company you trust with your personal and emotional information. Like I said, there’s a range of companies in the field right now; some are definitely more trustworthy than others,” Laestadius said. 
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