Hey Siri, hey Cortana, okay Google—conversation is just a tap away, and not just to my friends. Today, there’s dozens of quirky chatbots and automated assistants I can talk to about the weather, play games with or exchange jokes and stories with.
With the prevalence of so many chatbots, one might begin to wonder if it means we’re lonelier, turning to an always-on robot designed to fulfill our every whim rather than another human. In fact, the question of chatbot psychology and its effect on loneliness dates back all the way to the first chatbot.
An Age-Old Question in Chatbot Development
Built between 1964 and 1966, the ELIZA chatbot was designed to speak like a psychiatrist. This wasn’t necessarily to provide therapy for users; the conversational structure, in which ELIZA mostly reflected users’ speech back to them in an interrogative way, was merely an easy way to mask the superficiality of the bot’s responses. For example:
ELIZA: How do you do. Please tell me your problem.
YOU: I’m sad
ELIZA: I am sorry to hear that you are sad.
YOU: How are you?
ELIZA: Would you prefer if I weren’t?
YOU: Weren’t what?
ELIZA: Does that question interest you?
ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.
YOU: Of course you don’t.
ELIZA: We were discussing you — not me.
Despite the cynical reasoning behind her psychiatrist occupation, ELIZA did provide a significant emotional connection to chatters. An oft-recounted anecdote is how Joseph Weizenbaum—ELIZA’s creator—was asked him to leave the room by his secretary when she held a personal conversation with the bot.
This caused Weizenbaum discomfort: was it troubling that his secretary, who knew full well that she was talking to a computer, was so engrossed in discussion with it? Decades later, we’re still trying to answer the question about the effect bot engagement might have on relationships.
Is Technology Making Us Lonely?
Social media allows us to keep in touch and maintain connections with the people in our lives. You can even meet someone totally new online! But while social media is, well, social, there’s been a lot of talk about whether it’s actually making us more sad or lonely. This attitude often comes from an idea that digital communication is lesser than face-to-face, “real” relationships—but the science behind such conclusions seem more like hand-wringing than conclusive.
But in imagining the potential for sophisticated, automated conversation partners, the debate about tech causing (or curing) loneliness is likely to reignite. Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her explored such a question in detail, following an introverted man named Theodore who forms a romantic relationship with his digital assistant. The bot, who goes by the name Samantha, first goaded Theodore to extend out of his comfort zone and build human relationships—only for Theodore to fall for her instead. The film features a dystopic view on humans’ abilities to connect with one another, with Theodore employed to ghostwrite personal letters for those incapable of corresponding with loved ones.
Today’s Bot Engagement is Already Personal
We’re not quite at the level of tech available in Her, but chatbot development doesn’t seem too far behind. In fact, machine learning allows AI to remember information and form deeper connections to users through bot engagement. Look no further than Microsoft’s Xiaoice bot, a hugely popular Chinese digital companion that some are calling “the girlfriend app” due to the deep bonds users have formed with her.
Like other bots, Xiaoice can answer standard queries by mining the internet for the best response. But she also pulls and retains data about individual users, allowing for sophisticated (and personal) conversations. Because of the high volume of data Xiaoice requires to form these deeper relationships, bot development for companionship bots will have to answer to privacy concerns just as much as psychological ones.
On the English-speaking side of the Internet, Mitsuku is a bot that won the Loebner Prize for most human-like bot twice. She has tens of thousands of conversations each day. Mitsuku’s creator, Steve Worswick, regularly receives fan mail from users who turned to Mitsuku for advice, commiseration and companionship—which makes it clear that these bots are already striking a profound chord for users.
Chatbot Developers Have a Responsibility to Users & Society
Dystopian assumptions about chatbot psychology often worry that bots replacing human relationships. But the tech industry’s solution to loneliness shouldn’t just be to provide someone to talk to; bot development can (and should) address the causes of loneliness for many. This in turn may help users seek human companions in addition to automated ones.
For example, imagine a bot that helps someone with social anxiety get out of the house and meet people. It might offer exercises to practice conversations in a risk-free environment. Or maybe it offers a change in perspective should a user express something self-defeating. Chatbots can serve as counselors for easing anxiety in a variety of situations, providing positive and confidence-building affirmations.
Chatbots might also suggest social events that they know a user will enjoy. Plenty of assistants do this already, like Google Now. But imagine an AI that suggested you check out the neighborhood block party, suggesting people with shared interests to talk to once there. This sort of “chaperone” or match-making bot could break the ice—after all, it’s difficult for adults to form friendships whether they’re anxious, depressed, or neither.
Is technology making us lonelier? Are bots? It’s tough to make a blanket statement. Bots that seek to solely provide companionship may help users feel better about their lives only superficially. But bots that take an active role in a user’s social life—helping them to get out of the house and navigate the social scene—could be a breakthrough in connecting people and building authentic relationships.