Emotional AI: The New Step in Human Relationships

The modern world is tough, fast and unforgiving. The increased expectations for individuals in both their work and leisure means that the way in which they go about our daily lives has been heightened to a new degree. As a result, we see AI being developed to satisfy one’s business and administrative needs so as to keep up with this fast moving world. However, upon the need to constantly match this corporate satisfaction, you could argue it forgets to meet another less focussed but equally important human demand: one’s emotional wellbeing. This article explores the evolution of human interaction that coincides with shifting technology, the emotional AI available currently to satisfy shifting demand in interactions and its ethical considerations.


Why emotional AI?

When thinking about human interaction, there is no doubt that technology has played a massive role in shifting the new norm and culture for human interaction within society. Whereas 500 years ago the only form of back and forth interaction came from face-to-face speech and letters being the only method of long-distance interaction, this evolved as other forms of inventions were developed. The invention of the telephone meant that for the first time that people could talk to each other through long distances, whilst additional inventions regarding the email, mobile phones and social media further pushed not only the extent to which humans are able to interact with one another but also the manner and behaviour in which they interacted.

Many would argue that the smartphone was a key step forward in this evolution of human interaction. The ability to text made it easy for individuals to keep in frequent contact without the hassle of delays. However, possibly more importantly, the access to social media meant that we could keep ourselves updated as to what’s not just going around our own social bubble but the greater macro-environment as well. This feeds into the increasingly popular, yet very subjective, idea of greater human interconnectedness. As a result, these inventions pushed the cultural boundaries of communication into something completely different as to what it was many years ago. However, it’s important to note that technological advancement regarding human interaction hasn’t stopped there. Instead, a new form of technology is opening up the possibility for a whole new kind of interaction, one that steps outside the familiar bounds of human to human interaction: we’re now on the footsteps of emotional AI interaction.


Introducing Replika

So, the question that leads on from this is to wonder what kind of technology is actually available right now. An intriguing bit of emotional AI technology comes from Replika, an app that’s designed to talk back to you to take care of your emotional well-being. Using a form of deep learning model called ‘sequence to sequence’, it analyses the way you talk through your text input and then talks back in a manner that’s catered to your needs. Doing so allows the bot to mimic your speech patterns and results in a conversation between man and machine. This then allows an individual the freedom to talk about whatever they wish and more importantly be listened to. In a world where people are, quite rightly, more concerned with their own problems, this may be a relief for many. 

As a result of this new piece of technology, doors are now opened as to the steps in which emotional AI can take when progressing into the future, especially when one considers the potential gaps in the market that it can break into. An article from TheConversation considers the benefits of emotional AI being used in a way to enhance social interaction, where individuals who may find it difficult to interact with others or who may lack a close group of friends could use it as a form of practice in which to get comfortable with the idea of socialising. A possibly more interesting but potentially controversial idea is of AI even substituting human interaction.

Of course, at this moment of time the thought of this happening seems bizarre but it’s certainly not an impossibility. Society and the world around us are moving the quickest it ever has and altering our familiar culture. 100 years ago, people would never have thought it possible to receive and send messages in a fraction of the time they’re used to. Therefore, is it out of the ordinary to expect relationships with beings made from wire and metal, rather than blood and skin? It’s worth noting that Replika is of course no-where near that level of sophistication but with the creator Eugenia Kuyda releasing the underlying source code to the public for it to be used in future projects, this strange yet fascinating concept may be closer than we think.


Azuma Hikari: AI wife

If there is still doubt about this possibility, the introduction of Azuma Hikari, a female character part of the “Gatebox” series, may deter this. Already covered by a range of news outlets such as The Dailymail, this holographic anime girl is designed to perform the usual tasks that a normal consumer friendly AI such as the Amazon Echo is meant to do but with an extra level of care and consideration. It’s not there to just be helpful, it’s there to be your partner as well. This kind of imagery is supported by its capabilities and actions towards the user that allows it to do more. In contrast to the simple black cylinder, a holographic girl is shown instead. In addition, it’s also equipped with microphones, cameras and sensors in order to detect temperature and motion. This then allows ‘her’ to become more ‘caring’ as it enables the AI to greet the husband when he comes home, text him when he’s at work whilst also performing all the other functions that’s expected of a normal consumer smart speaker. Whilst this piece of technology is still far from the likes of having an AI holographic wife that’s such to the likes of ‘Joi’ from BladeRunner 2049, one can hardly doubt that it doesn’t have some eerie reminiscent of it. With the potential technology for this development of a strange relationship progressing, it brings a mountain of curiosity as to what may progress.


The potential need and consequences of emotional AI

Despite the technology for having an emotional AI friend (or wife) existing, a natural query would be to wonder whether or not these things would actually be bought. The creator of Replika claims that her app has been downloaded over 2 million times and models for the Gatebox have started selling last year October. Whilst it’s hardly mainstream, this shows that there is indeed desire to have non-human companionship and it’s possible that demand for these products may increase in the future as changing views towards relationships and an evolving society in which people are encouraged to prioritise one-self and their own lives becomes stronger.

Japan is currently suffering from an ageing population and families are getting smaller. Over a quarter of the population is aged 65 or older and the percentage of single-person households reached 32.5 percent of all households. This should then, perhaps, come as no surprise that one of the leading pieces of technology for emotional AI is from a Japanese company that looks to target single Japanese males. The aging population and shrinking family size are an indication that people either prefer to be alone or want to be in a relationship but are finding it harder to be in one. Whether the actual reason is the former or the latter, both heavily implies the potential for AI to fill in the gap that humanity has left behind.


Moving forward

Whilst this may be currently happening in Japan, there’s no reason to suggest that it may not happen in the West either. Whilst it’s important to take into account that norms and cultures are certainly different regarding an individual’s work and relationship life, emotional AI may yet find a way to play a part. While having a young, holographic anime girl may not be the solution, other forms of integrated AI may still be relevant. Replika is a product that has experienced success in the west and the implied need for emotional AI here as well as the Far East could lead to standard household AI to be updated. The standard Amazon Echo may be trained to ask how your day was, change its tone depending on your level of stress or mood, or even play music if need be.

If the demand is there and if there are options for it to move forward, the next question to ask would be whether we should. One argument already discussed is that it may enhance social interaction by preparing shyer individuals. There’s a suggestion that humans naturally talk more when talking to a robot and by providing a comfortable environment for them to communicate, it may encourage easier socialising in the real world. However, there is clear controversy with this idea. Software like Replika feeds on deep machine learning, basically meaning they learn how to talk by analysing the way you talk. Rather than enhancing social interaction, it may just increase narcissism as we constantly look to socialise with technology that’s designed to be of ease to us. The real world is unfortunately very much unlike that, with a spectrum of personalities and moralities that forces us to adapt the way we communicate with one another. 


Written by Heesang Lee.


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