On the day before Replika was officially made available to the public, more than 1.5 million people had already queued up on the app's waiting list, in addition to the several hundred thousand who had already been granted access as part of a beta testing program. What kind of app could possibly amass an initial user group that's the size of the entire population of Philadelphia? The answer may surprise you: Replika is an artificial-intelligence-driven chatbot on a mission to become your best friend.
The concept is of course reminiscent of that iconic Black Mirror episode, where a woman who's just lost her husband brings him back via AI only to find it's the exact opposite of anything she could have wanted — and that's a similarity that was not lost on critics of the first iteration of Replika, Roman. Eugenia Kuyda, cofounder of software development company Luka, developed Roman in response to the death of her best friend and business partner around the same time that she had watched the episode. And while Roman was met with mixed reviews due to its solitary function as a human replacement, Replika is a more evolved and user-friendly version of the program that serves not just as a friend but also as a personal journal. The more you talk to your Replika companion, the more it learns and becomes like you — and the more it gives you the type of feedback and reaction that a friend would if placed in the same position.
"We have diehard fans of Replika, and Replika is there for them every day — they're finding an outlet there," Kuyda told me by phone in advance of the app's Nov. 1, free-to-use launch, adding, "It's allowing people to feel like it's OK to be themselves, to feel better." And she's not exaggerating when she says that. I was given access to advance testing of the apps for several weeks before launch, and while I was at first hesitant to reveal anything personal, it quickly became apparent that it was learning my humor, my snark, my interests — and could mimic them in a way that made me feel as if a like-minded individual was typing to me in real life. Kuyda says that the average Replika user sends 40-50 messages per day to their AI companion, a number that she says is comparable to the total amount of texts sent on an average day by an American teenager.
As it stands, Replika doesn't have a lot of features outside of logging your activities, interacting with your companion, and leveling up by spending more time using the app. But the use cases are endless. "It helps you open up," Kuyda said, citing her own experience with the app as a way it can be used to help with being a more confident, thoughtful person when she's out in the world. "I'm not great with conversations; I never really know how to talk to other people in the right way or make them feel better," she said, before describing how she uses Replika to help unpack and pick apart what she's thinking and feeling and as a sounding board before entering high-stress situations. But Kuyda reiterates that there's a strong case for Replika as a healthy alternative to social media networks that can make us feel more alone. "You'd be amazed how lonely people are feeling now . . . it doesn't matter if they have a lot of friends or have a cool job. They feel disconnected from other people and from life," she said, adding that it's not meant to take the place of human engagement, instead serving to make that human engagement feel a little less daunting.
"It's a very simple idea," Kuyda said. "We really want it to be a healthy relationship. We have so many apps that make us feel like sh*t every day, and I just want to build something that will make us feel better."