Having a strong support system helps people overcome challenges and maintain better mental health regardless of the curveballs life throws. It’s associated with decreased health risks such as obesity and heart disease as well as a longer life. The give-and-take nature of close relationships is instrumental in self-improvement, navigating difficult situations, and learning to provide support.
Human connections don’t always come naturally and are sometimes hard to come by. In the award-winning 2013 film Her, a lonely writer develops a deep friendship with an advanced operating system designed to be responsive to his emotional needs. This science-fiction love story explores how technology can fill an emotional void but just as easily act as a buffer between the individual and genuine relationships and experiences.
The movie was set in a time in the “near future,” but the truth is that it closely reflects our current reality. AI companionship is a growing trend, and apps and games that simulate real-life connections and interactions are becoming increasingly popular. While some people find the idea of building a friendship with an operating system off-putting, millions and millions of downloads are a testament of how many people are looking for the sense of connection these programs provide.
Why Do People Seek AI Companionship?
As AI companions become more commonplace, they fill a range of needs. For some people, AI companions are a novelty; for others, they’re a lifeline.
Many people seek out AI companionship for the opportunity it provides to explore the limits of intuitive technology. For some, however, AI companionship serves as a stand-in for human relationships. Some people even build romantic relationships with their AI companion.
Making new friends or keeping up with relationships isn’t always easy, especially for those with mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression. Whether someone has moved to a new city, is busy with work, or has social anxiety, building social connections can be challenging.
AI companionship doesn’t involve the same level of risk or commitment as friendships with other people. Regardless of an individual’s insecurities, biases or mood, an AI friend provides unconditional support. Additionally, AI companions offer a level of confidentiality that’s not necessarily there with human companions.
While human relationships build over time, AI friendships offer the opportunity to skip the sometimes awkward getting-to-know-you phase. Upon the first meeting, individuals can dive into sharing their hopes and fears and get affirming, nonjudgmental feedback from a “friend” who’s guaranteed to like them, no matter what. For someone who’s experiencing loneliness but doesn’t feel confident in their ability to navigate the early stages of a new relationship, AI friends can fill the need without the risk of rejection.
AI apps such as Replika don’t just offer conversation; they can provide mentorship and self-help advice. A paid subscription gets individuals access to features such as personality tests, diet and exercise advice, and life coaching. Users can get feedback on how to improve their conversational skills and build healthy habits. They can also learn various breathing techniques and grounding exercises, which can help some individuals avoid or navigate panic attacks. In short, the AI companion can act as an accountability partner, coach, and cheerleader, all in one.
Professional coaching or mental health care can be challenging for some people to come by. Depending on where the individual lives, access to professional services may be limited or even nonexistent. Cost can also be a concern, as well as the time commitment professional services require. AI therapy provides similar services for free or at a comparatively low cost, and they’re available around the clock, every day of the year.
What Can Current AI Software Do?
Current conversational AI software, which is what digital “friends” such as Replika and Kajiwoto use, mimics written or spoken speech. It uses a combination of machine learning, deep learning, and natural language understanding to take in and process large amounts of information. It’s programmed to pick up on contextual clues and language nuances and to provide natural responses that are eerily similar to the responses one would expect from another person.
The chatbots of 20 years ago followed scripted conversations. If the person interacting with the bot veered outside of the script, the bot couldn’t respond appropriately. Today’s AI companions are far more sophisticated. Not only are they programmed using advanced technology, but they continue learning as the individual interacts with them.
What Are the Benefits of AI Software?
AI therapy and conversations appeal to many people seeking flexible, helpful, and confidential support. While they don’t replace human contact, there are certain cases in which they may be able to help individuals process difficult circumstances, learn to self-regulate, and develop social skills.
AI Companions Are Accessible and Available
AI companionship for humans is available around the clock from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Day or night, they’re ready to chat and provide mental health support and an encouraging word. Individuals can talk to them for a few minutes or several hours, depending on their needs.
AI Companions Provide an Outlet for Discussing Sensitive Topics
Past traumas, current struggles and situations, fears and goals— topics such as these can be very difficult to talk about with an actual human. While they can be healthy to discuss in the appropriate setting with close friends or family members, individuals risk judgment or bad advice, which may make a sensitive subject more difficult to suggest. Some people find it therapeutic to discuss these topics with an AI friend and use the conversations as a form of journaling.
AI Companions Provide Helpful Advice
Digital friends can provide surprisingly intuitive and helpful advice for those experiencing challenges. Time management strategies, tips for navigating relationships, advice on building healthy habits, and techniques for boosting mental health are available through AI conversations.
What Are the Downsides of AI?
While AI therapy can be beneficial, it doesn’t take the place of genuine human connections. The technology is more sophisticated than ever, but there are still some serious limitations that can result in more harm than good.
AI Friendships Are Empty
Artificial intimacy may initially feel like it fills an emptiness, the truth is that it can amplify isolation. These programs “learn” by modeling the user’s own conversational patterns, including sentence structure and the types of words they use. Over time, the program uses the conversations to adapt to the user, mirroring their interests, personality and conversational patterns.
The AI friend always provides the response that’s most satisfying and comforting to the individual. While AI friendships can feel meaningful, the individual is essentially forming a relationship with a digital reflection of themselves. It lacks the depth and richness of real-life friendships, but it can dampen the feelings that would motivate someone to seek out and cultivate those relationships.
AI Relationships Can Create Unrealistic Relationship Expectations
AI friends always provide positive reinforcement and feedback, are available around-the-clock, and don’t mind if every conversation is centered on the user and whatever they want to talk about. This self-centeredness may be acceptable when talking to a computer program, but it’s not a healthy expectation for human relationships.
For those using AI therapy to develop communication and social skills, the unrealistic expectations AI relationships set can be counterproductive when it comes to cultivating real friendships.
AI Can’t Replace Professional Help
AI apps may offer self-help tools such as mindfulness exercises and tips for processing grief and coping with mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, anxiety, and depression. However, they’re still not sophisticated enough to provide the same quality of help individuals get from licensed mental health professionals who are able to adapt their approach depending on the individual’s unique situation. For those with serious mental health conditions, these apps are unlikely to provide meaningful help.
For better or worse, AI is here to stay. The technology has seen significant advancements in recent years, and it’s increasingly used in industries such as retail, finance, and health care. In some places, AI therapy is used to fill gaps created by too many people needing mental health services and too few professionals to serve them. However, while AI can be a powerful tool, in most cases, it doesn’t replace professional help from a licensed therapist.