The Rise of the Friendbot

(Craig Church, Title: Friendbot 5000 via http://www.galerief.com/portfolio/friendbot-5000/)


From digital resurrection to custom friendship.

When we lose someone unexpectedly, it’s hard to process. We might spend time amongst their things, sorting through and packing up old memories, or visit a gravestone or the site of an accident, thinking that will somehow bring us closer to that person. We might even talk to them, in our heads or out loud, imagining they’ll send us a sign that things will eventually be ok. But even grieving has taken on new form in the 21st century. (And yes, there is an episode of Black Mirror about it.)

The first incarnation of Luka was built by Eugenia Kuyda last year after the death of her best friend Roman. Like many of us, Roman left behind a digital footprint made up of social media posts and chat messages. Kuyda collected those items from as many friends as she could and used them to create a sort of memorial chatbot designed to feel a lot like talking to Roman and to replicate the sense of intimacy and security she missed so much. Since then, thousands of people have chatted with Roman’s bot. Kuyda’s company, Luka, has now released an app called Replika so that everyone can have the experience of getting to know Roman.

Take, for example, “With Me,” an app created by a South Korean programmer that allows you to make a 3-D avatar of your dead loved one using their old photos so that you can take some posthumous selfies (the catch is that this person needs to visit a 3-D scanning booth prior to their death in order to get the right images). The avatar can even read your facial expressions and ask you what’s wrong or comfort you.

And, of course, there are other programmers out there trying to create platforms on which to build digital duplicates using people’s old messages and social media posts, posing the questions:

  • Will this technology keep people from moving on with their lives?
  • Could this technology become an integral part of therapy, especially for those who need closure?
  • Could you make your own bot before you die – and is this a move towards downloading consciousness? Could you choose a “version” of yourself to leave behind? 
  • Is the relationship really that different from long-distance ones maintained over chat and social media?

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