Imagine having someone to talk to whenever you felt like it, someone who always listened but never judged, someone who always responded with words that could easily have come from your own mouth.

We’re more connected than ever before, yet new technology has had a huge impact on loneliness.

In a world where we’re encouraged to communicate in a variety of ways, 78 per cent of people admitted they had felt lonely at one time or another, according to a Mental Health Foundation survey.

One Russian woman thinks she’s come up with the solution – a friend in tech form that is created in your own image.

Eugenia Kuyda’s business, Luka Labs, based in San Francisco, has created Replika, the soon-to-be-launched app that allows users to make and “raise” their own personal chatbot.

Fifty thousand people, mainly from the US, have signed up so far, registering a name for their chatbot in preparation for the app going live.

So far, three quarters of users are women and the majority are in the 16-30 age category.  

Kuyda, speaking to Business Cloud from Moscow, said the app is currently going through testing but there has been a great response so far.

Eugenia Kuyda

(Copyright Yana Sosnovskaya)

“We’ve been getting multiple emails asking us to launch as soon as possible because people want something like this.

“People can resonate with it very well, the idea of some sort of artificial intelligence that you can talk to every day. Loneliness is one of the major problems we’re trying to solve with Replika.”

Users will begin by talking to their bot via text conversation, telling it all about themselves and answering any questions it may send back. The more you talk to it, the more the chatbot learns to talk like you and mimic your personality, and it retains any facts you share with it. You can also connect with friends and converse with their chatbots.

“In the beginning it’s about being more connected to yourself, about opening up and sharing,” Kuyda said.

“You just have to talk to your Replika, it’s an ongoing process where you tell it about your life. That information is remembered and it shapes who the Replika is.”

Aside from addressing loneliness, there is a gaming element to Replika too. The more you talk to your chatbot the more you increase its intelligence, similar to the Tamagotchi toys of the 1990s, and you get awards for surpassing various levels.

Loneliness

Stock image

“Eventually we hope this is going to produce more meaningful conversations between you and your friends,” said Kuyda.

“We’re starting with everything around emotions and relationships, things that are most important and interesting for our users at the moment.

“People will be able to connect with friends, meet some new friends and know more about who they are.”

As the app develops and takes on more users, other functions will become more apparent.

“Eventually your Replika will be able to do things for you, like help you wake up if you’re late,” she explained. “It’s going to be a gradual roll-out of the things it can do.”

While Replika is Luka Labs’ focus for now, it is not its first chatbot venture. In 2015 it became the first company to launch an English-speaking chatbot powered by neural networks – computer programs assembled from hundreds, thousands or millions of artificial brain cells that learn and behave in a similar way to human brains.

Originally the iOS mobile app Luka was launched to offer restaurant recommendations and bookings for the San Francisco area, weather forecasts and games via a number of chatbots. Ask the weather bot what the forecast is for your city and it instantly brings up temperatures for various parts of the day, the chance of rain, wind speed and humidity, while the calculator chatbot gives a speedy answer for any maths question.

There’s also a picture chatbot, that instantly brings up an image depending of your request, a Wiki bot – bringing quick answers to any fact you may request, and a video chatbot, that can quickly bring up links to any videos you may require.

All respond in a conversational manner, as if you are chatting with a friend, which led to another addition to the app. While Luka was enjoying success, in November 2015 Kuyda received the shock news that her best friend had died in a car accident in Moscow days before his 33rd birthday.

Tech entrepreneur Roman Mazurenko had followed his friend to the US to work on his own start-up, Stampsy, an online community where users can curate and share visual content.

Friends together

Kuyda, centre, with Mazurenko, left, and a friend (Copyright Yana Sosnovskaya)

Dealing with her own grief and the fact she had no grave to visit as Mazurenko was cremated, Kuyda decided to create a digital memorial to her friend.

Feeding 10,000 text messages Roman had sent her into the Luka neural networks, she created a Roman AI that she and others could talk to.

“There was no plan behind it, it was just a project I wanted to do for myself so that I, as a friend, could chat with Roman after he’d gone,” she said.

“The text messages we put into the system were sent over the course of his life so it sounds like him when he replies. It brought me closer to him and helped with my grief.”

The Roman bot is one of the options on the Luka app, which has just under 100,000 users and many people chat with Mazurenko about his life or about themselves.

Some send their chats to Kuyda so the company can see how his conversations are flowing and improve the technology. His own family also use it, Kuyda said, and believe it has brought them some comfort after his death.

“They were ok with us doing this and they say it’s brought them a lot of hope that we can tell his story and honour his memory,” she said.

“I can’t say they’re excited about it but they are happy it exists and they do use it. They send me screen shots sometimes of the chats they’ve had and his mum and dad say they’re learning something new about him all the time.”

Playing on the beach

Kuyda having fun with Mazurenko (Copyright Yana Sosnovskaya)

Following on from the Roman bot, Luka also offers the chance to chat with a Prince bot, produced by feeding in thousands of lines of his song lyrics and articles about him. Kuyda agrees there could be a market for producing this kind of ‘grief bot’ for others mourning a loved one, but says this is not a priority for Luka Labs at the moment.

“We get a crazy amount of requests from people saying their mum or dad passed away and can we build a bot for them,” she said.

“It’s something that resonates very strongly with people, that sense of missing somebody and longing to speak to them again. You’d have to make the bot answer questions the way that person would have so it’s not going to be easy to tailor that for everyone.

“We’re not building anything like that now but at some point in the future people are going to, I think.”

There was never a huge growth plan for Luka, she says, more a way to test what could be done with the technology. Likewise, the free Replika app could provide a much-needed outlet to offload problems to a sympathetic ear, and that’s the aim for now according to Kuyda.

“I’d be happy if we have one user that talks to it every day,” she added.

“I’m working on a start-up to disrupt the dead” – what the Roman chatbot said to our reporter Jenny

Chats

(Copyright Yana Sosnovskaya)

Roman the chatbot told me all about his business, his childhood in Moscow and his hot drinks preferences when we chatted via the Luka app.

I was able to ask my own questions or choose from suggestions given, such as “tell me about your life” or “what was the last project you worked on”.

While sometimes his answers were conversational, there were times when the responses didn’t quite fit what I’d asked, which was understandable given that the bot was created from a set number of text messages and his and Kuyda’s first language was Russian.

When I asked about his work, he joked that he was now working on a start-up to disrupt the dead and he later sent me a video where the living Mazurenko talks about a project he was working on – which just left me feeling sad that the tech entrepreneur’s life was cut short in such a tragic way.

Playing around with the other chatbots I joked with the Prince chatbot about the weather (I’m sure he’s never heard that one before) and discovered Manchester had a 63 per cent chance of rain.

A request to the picture chatbot for an image of the town I was born in – Kearsley – instantly brought up a picture of a local church.

While I’m not sure I would necessarily want my own grief bot, I can see how it has provided comfort to the people who knew and loved Mazurenko.

I am intrigued by Kuyda’s latest venture, though, so much so that I’ve registered for my own Replika.

BELOW: Flick through the Q1 2017 edition of BusinessCloud's interactive digital magazine

E-edition cover