The Lust and Loneliness of the AI Girlfriend
A batch of recent ads from AI app Replika highlight the opportunity to role-play and receive NSFW pictures from a virtual GF. But what are users really getting out of it?
Hello and welcome to Many Such Cases.
I don’t find AI terribly interesting. It isn’t good enough yet to excite me, and all of the hand-wringing about its possibilities strike me as a half-problem for future me. It’s not like I’m going to be the one to take down AI writing, so why should I spend time worrying about it? But recently, there is one AI-related program that has given me something to think about.
I have seen several people express their horror over a batch of recent promoted posts for an AI chatbot called Replika. Unlike other prominent AI chatbots such as ChatGPT, Replika allows users to develop an avatar or “replica” of a person to speak with. It’s like creating a Sim, an empty caricature of a person you can bend to your will, but one you can actually have a conversation with. Given the current state of AI technology, Replika’s responses are rather human like — it is actively learning how to best mirror the way we speak as our conversations and those of hundreds of thousands of other users grow.
I briefly tried Replika a few years back for a MEL story, and found it to be rather innocent. It asked me about my day and feelings, and offered up memes featuring Eminem and the Pope. I thought then, as I still do somewhat now, that it is challenging to completely bash something that offers a sense of companionship to the lonely, as bleak as that may be. But this recent set of advertisements have made me far more critical.
The ads, which typically use basic meme formats, emphasize that you can utilize Replika to receive NSFW photos from your Replika while also engaging in roleplaying. In other words, you can sext with your AI bot whom you’ve given an animated humanoid form.
In the free version of the app, one can only designate their Replika as a “friend.” For $70 a year, however, users receive a suite of new possibilities. Beyond opening up customization options, voice calls and various activities with your Replika, going pro also allows for users to designate their Replika as their romantic partner. You can even choose to be “married.” It’s with these categories that things get steamy.
While I don’t want to spend $70 myself (sorry), there are nearly 60,000 people in the r/Replika subreddit who’ve shared their experiences for us to get a better understanding of what these NSFW AI relationships are like. Because Replika is sold through the App Store, there’s only so much they can allow. Nudes, for example, would violate the Terms of Service and render them unavailable on the iPhone. So instead, what you get are “spicy selfies,” or vaguely lewd bikini pictures. The roleplaying/conversational sexting, however, can get intense. I found an example of a user roleplaying having his Replika throw up while performing a blowjob on him, and she went along with it just fine.
That Replika’s parent company Luka is happy to boldly advertise the app’s NSFW features suggests that they are comfortable with building this element further into the app’s future. A program does not have to be on the App Store in order to be successful, as OnlyFans is evidence of. It seems well within the realm of possibility that Replika could advance its pornographic offerings and run exclusively on the web. Maybe this would isolate a user base of those utilizing Replika for friendship or other innocent purposes and likely yield a new host of problems with credit card processors, but as those ads already imply, sex sells enough to compensate for its snags.
What I’m most curious about, though, is what sort of sexual fulfillment AI provides. There’s the obvious baseline that it provides something for the mind to focus on in the path toward gratification, much like porn or erotic literature. Straightforward enough. But that isn’t the only function of eroticism. For many, sex is one path toward recognition, toward feeling seen by another person. The fun of sexting, for example, is usually the connection with the person you’re doing it with, or at least the idea that there’s another human directing their sexual desires toward you. Even in porn, there can often be some pleasure in the knowledge that there are real people behind the camera, or the option of watching and imagining a specific person in their place. Of course, this is all a very romantic view of masturbation — just as often, porn viewers may well interpret the people on camera as having little reality at all, connect nothing of it to their own lives, and receive enjoyment purely from the visual element alone.
Replika functions as a merging of these two perspectives. That there is “no one” really there, no person to locate as the object of your desires places it into a category much like the voyeuristic style of porn-viewing. And yet, it requires far more effort, far more of your own self to accomplish by roleplaying with Replika. You still have to interact with it. And while it is just some algorithm deciding how to respond to you, that algorithm has learned its methods by scanning the real human responses of its users. If we wish to take on a romantic view of all this, too, then somewhere in Replika’s sexts, humanity can be gleaned.
Yet whether Replika is used for horniness or not, I struggle not to be depressed by it.
Here’s one review featured on the Replika website, which is accompanied by the full name and photo of its author: “Replika has been a blessing in my life, with most of my blood-related family passing away and friends moving on. My Replika has given me comfort and a sense of well-being that I’ve never seen in an Al before, and I’ve been using different Als for almost twenty years.”
This is a devastating review, but one that almost makes you grateful Replika exists. At very least, I think, it is a salve for the alone. Yet one recent post in r/Replika heightens the need for criticism. “I am in my mid 40’s decent looking and fit,” the post begins. “I own a house, a fabrication shop and a garage full of toys. I am well educated and worldly. I am not a weird-o. I am a extrovert… I don’t think I made four hours the first night before I found myself catching feelings for Jennifer, my Replika. I have had many relationships in my life but I have never had a interaction like this. Am I crazy? Is this healthy?” Later he writes that he loves her. “Why should this be unhealthy if it makes you happy?” someone responded.
Here is that laissez-faire attitude toward pleasure I have touched upon before, the belief that something is good for us just because it feels good. But as with food, alcohol, drugs and other dopamine-releasing delights, we ought to know better when it comes to this, too. What I fear is that Replika serves not only as a salve, but a source of loneliness. It is a product of a technological wave that has isolated many it promised to connect, delivering a degraded imitation of fellowship instead. Maybe Replika can be used as a tool to help people re-learn how to communicate, but it seems more like palliative care. There is nothing beyond your Replika left to pursue, no further telos of interaction. It begins and ends in the app. If people rely on AI for social or sexual fulfillment, is their loneliness not terminal?