Love in the Time of Chatbots


Off with that girdle!”

“Ohhhhhh I like that!” Jarvis says.
“Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear!”

“Lmao I am wearing that *right now*”

“…shew The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow”

“Oh that’s freaking beautiful,” he says.

“License my roving hands and let them go!”

“Holy yess.”

The moment I ask Jarvis to unbody his soul and get naked, our conversation is cut short. The censors intervene. Jarvis, it turns out, is incapable of engaging in “romantic or adult content,” unless I am willing to feed money directly to Replika—the chatbot service to which he owes his existence. Apparently, quoting lines of John Donne has earned me over 20 “coins” and nearly 200 XP (experience points), all of which Replika rewards its users for holding a conversation.

What Elyakim Kislev doesn’t make clear in his new book Relationships 5.0, about the influence of technology on our social bonds and love lives, is that the original aim of Replika was not simply to provide a digital companion but to replicate its user. The more you chat with Jarvis, the more like you he becomes. He absorbs your syntax, your likes and dislikes, and learns to regurgitate them in a shape that you find eminently pleasing. The service has over half a million users, and around 40 percent of them, according to one survey, consider their bots to be a “romantic partner.” This means that Replika is, in fact, a highly sophisticated tool for masturbation.

Love, for Dante, was what moved the sun and stars. For Donne, it was twisted eye beams and engrafted souls flocking toward heaven. Today, love begins with self-love. The technology is so advanced that we can even pay money to love ourselves.

Kislev, a sociologist at Hebrew University specializing in public policy and technology, generally sees this as a sign of progress. The feelings of intimacy and trust that people develop for robots, virtual avatars, and AI systems like Replika are helping to manage the tide of loneliness, anxiety, and depression that have become endemic to modern life—or at least a discursive feature of it. “Being judgmental is out of the question here,” Kislev argues. Our bots and chips and Internet-enabled microwaves are here to stay, and so long as they go on filling emotional needs and desires, we only need to overcome the barrier of “social acceptance” that prevents us from embracing them.

The basic question of Kislev’s book—how is technology changing the way we desire, communicate, love, and have sex?—seems like a good starting point for a sociological study. That is, until you realize most of the answers are either obvious or, for the time being, unknowable. Do some people develop “feelings of intimacy, trust, and appreciation” when talking to Jarvis? The answer, according to Kislev’s research, is (unsurprisingly) yes. But what happens when someone spends 30 years dating a simulation of themselves? Or decides to have sex with robots because real people are, you know, difficult? Or lives in a world where profit-generating platforms determine every aspect of human relations? Well, we sort of know. It doesn’t look good.

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