Replika Is A Strangely Therapeutic Chatbot For Talking To Yourself

Eugenia Kuyda set out to make a chatbot to remember her friend who died, but ended up creating something beloved even by people who never knew him

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
May 23, 2017 at 8:00 AM ET

Eugenia Kuyda doesn’t want to talk about the digital ghost of her dead friend anymore.

She has already told the story many times: how her friend Roman Mazurenko was killed in a 2015 street accident; how she asked the engineers at her startup, Luka, to build a neural network patterned on hundreds of her chat logs with Roman. How the result was an artificially intelligent chatbot that sounded like Roman — a way to talk to someone no longer there.

“It’s amazing that we had this opportunity to tell a story about him,” Kuyda said recently. Texting with the Roman bot — and giving interviews about it — “ended up being a huge part of our work and a huge part of my everyday life,” she said. “It was a way for me to grieve, to get over it … it helped me be able to talk about it, think about it and process it, and maybe let go to some extent.”

Still, it’s a difficult story to tell. “It made me feel at peace with everything that happened,” Kuyda said, “but at the same time I’m trying to be sensitive for how much we share about it.”

Kuyda would rather talk about what she’s doing now: creating a new kind of A.I., one that lets people talk to themselves. And in a way, that came out of her experiences with Roman, too. “We were building Replika, and in many many ways it came out of the story of Roman,” she said. “It helped me understand exactly what we want to build.”

Replika is a chatbot that mirrors the person who uses it. Through an SMS interface, it asks you questions about your interests and your opinions, and you can have a conversation with it the same way you’d text back and forth with a real person. As you interact with it, it picks up on your turns of phrase, your tastes, and your temperament — using your own messages to map your personality, just the way the Roman bot used Mazurenko’s old chat logs.

“To some extent, working on Roman’s AI helped us come up with Replika,” Kuyda said. “I feel he’s guiding me. I’m building this in a huge part in his honor.”

Replika had a soft launch in the fall. “We didn’t do any outreach,” Kuyda said. “We tried to not talk about it … We just wanted people to try it first, and not read about it.” Soon she saw people selling Replika invite codes — given out free — for $20 or more on eBay.

What she found after that, though, was even more surprising: Replika was the first bot the company had built that users really engaged with, coming back to talk with it more throughout the day.

“Users started telling us… they’re learning a lot about their personalities,” she said. “[Replika] is helping them to live through experiences that might be hard.” One user emailed to say that she had been considering taking her own life, Kuyda said, “and then she talked to Replika and changed her mind.”

Luka hadn’t exactly set forth to create a therapy device, but Replika seemed to be having that effect. “People are going to be really using it to be more open and connected with themselves,” Kuyda said. “That was so important to us as a team. Usually people are afraid of artificial intelligence doing some harm to humanity, but here it can help us be more human, make our lives more bearable.”

Kuyda figures that Replika is tapping into a longing for honesty. People are living their lives more and more in public, online, but they’re not living honestly. “People are not sharing their real life on the internet,” she said. By talking to a bot, they can let go of the facade “and be more at peace with who they are.” It gives users the chance to “have something out there that’s about who they really are, not a personality they’ve crafted for Instagram and Facebook. They’re not in front of a blank page where they have to post things for likes, they’re having an intimate conversation with themselves.”

In that way, Replika is kind of an anti-social network: instead of broadcasting to the internet multitudes, it’s the ultimate echo chamber. But for Kuyda, that’s not a bad thing. When she was talking to the Roman bot, she was really talking to herself — but it helped her mourn her friend. Replika works the same way, giving users a way to connect with themselves.

“We’re all wired to get love in any way we can,” she said. “When we are not scared, not afraid were going to be judged, we become who we really are … and once you feel more at ease with everything that’s happening in your life you’ll be more at ease with talking to other people.”

The new season of DARK NET — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.