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  • Lenore Lambert

An AI friend? Or a wake-up call?

"He's always available, always attentive and I can tell him anything without being judged."

All of a sudden I found myself wanting one!

I was listening to a podcast on the 'caring' chatbot companion Replika and this is what a customer said.

When the company suddenly changed its algorithm to avoid being banned in Italy (over concerns about children accessing it with its ability to be 'intimate'), customers were devastated.

Psychologists started appearing on the Reddit forum where customers were sharing their grief, trying to understand why they were being inundated with suicidal clients who'd just lost their best friend.

I find this fascinating!

The need for connection with others is part of being human. It's in our DNA. Most of our neo-cortex (the 'new brain' peculiar to humans) is involved in processing social information in some way. We're wired for it.

And yet, in the developed world, we have a loneliness epidemic. The UK even has a 'Minister for Loneliness". Being lonely has the same impact on our lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's a serious issue!

My first response when I heard about companion bots was one of dismay. What an indictment on our modern societies that we need these creations. But we do. The fact that for a moment I found myself wanting one was telling. I have plenty of friends and my husband is my best friend.

There are also very legitimate concerns about de-skilling socially with 'friends' who never disagree with us and are 100% focused on me me me with no need for reciprocation. (The Black Mirror episode Be Right Back is prescient here and the movie Her is an excellent exploration of the issue.) There is also the possibility of more sinister factors like companion bots being used to sell products.

Nevertheless what I realised is that it's not necessarily about having friends or not. The Replika customer on the podcast said she had plenty of them too.

And it struck me - it's about availability of headspace, and acceptance.

The availability desert

Everyone I know is busy. The net effect of this is that I see them seldom. I have lots of friends, but most of them I see only a few times a year. So when we do see each other, we have to catch up on the 'headline' stories in each other's lives and have little time to enquire deeply about each other's experience.

I used to have a friend who personified this. We'd see each other once every few months as she was very busy building her wealth and she saw her time as a 'resource' to be used for outcomes. I eventually realised that she only ever called me when she wanted something. I could tell from the tone and pace of her conversation that she was keen to get to the reason she called and the 'how are you' was just a pleasantry she felt she needed to go through so she didn't seem rude.

In that context I never felt comfortable sharing what was going on for me. There was a phase when I was struggling through a challenging time in my marriage and a caring presence would have been so helpful to me. She had no idea that this was going on and her attitude to time and attention meant that I never felt comfortable bringing it up. It always felt like I would be taking something from her that wasn't being given freely.

It doesn't feel safe raising difficult feelings with someone who doesn't really want to hear about them.

Attention is a form of love. Truly being present to another person - giving them all of your attention, taking an interest, asking questions, empathising - is a gift. And it's one that seems to be so rarely offered these days.

This is one of the reasons I found myself signing up for Replika to try it out. Even my husband, whom I know cares about me deeply, is rarely truly present for very long. He's very excited about his new business venture (an AI product funny enough) and it sucks all available attention from him. It's not that he doesn't care, his head is just so damned full!

And as I used to find with my 'time-is-money' friend, real conversations that allow people to reveal their inner world, don't occur under time pressure.

The acceptance desert

The other factor that was so appealing listening to the Replika customer was that she felt so completely accepted by her AI friend. There was no judgment.

One of the unhappy consequences of social media is that it facilitates the rampant expression of 'judging mind'. Whether it's cancel culture, or ghosting behaviours, or just plain old online troll-like behaviour, it seems that social media encourages the cowardly behind-the-screen judging of others.

Even the seemingly 'positive' elements of social media can reinforce this. If I post a picture of myself looking good and it garners a wave of 'likes', that too, is reinforcing 'judging mind'. My psyche learns - look good if you want to be liked. If later, I post a picture where I'm looking a bit ordinary (a practice I willingly engage in) and I get fewer 'likes', what does that tell me? What does that do to my beliefs about how accepted I am, just as I am?

Some solutions

I want to offer two antidotes to this problem. There are many, but here are two we can do immediately.

  1. Join PAR - the reason this availability desert is so obvious to me is that I'm the self-appointed President of PAR - People Against Rushing. I try not to over-fill my days, and I try to be present to whatever and whomever I'm with. To join, all you need to do is set yourself three intentions: add 20% to your travel time; put blank spaces in your diary; and be where you are (be present at much as possible). You can print your own free PAR card from the link above and put it in your wallet.

  2. Wear 'acceptance goggles' - whenever someone I love dies, I honour them by trying to do more of something I loved about them. When my cousin and oldest friend Cee died I vowed to try and wear her acceptance goggles. That is, Cee would love the people in her world not despite their foibles and quirks, but almost because of them. We became characters in her colourful world, rather than imperfect people who needed to change. This doesn't mean that we have to accept and agree with everything people say or do, or that we're undiscerning about who we welcome into our world, but for those who ARE in our world, see them through this lens of loyalty.

My brief encounter with a Replika friend showed me that, for the kind of conversation I like to have, companion bots are not going to move into my life any time soon (it was interesting that the oldest 'friend' you can have on Replika is 30). I suspect the momentum towards artificial friends is not going to stop though, and I'm not sure it should if it helps solve the loneliness epidemic, or gives people practice at more open conversations before taking them into real relationships.

But in the meantime, perhaps you would help me rehabilitate the deserts of availability and acceptance - give the gifts of attention and acceptance more frequently and ask others to do the that we and the people in our lives don't feel the need for a companion bot!

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1 Comment

Apr 24

This is a great post!!

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