Eugenia Kuyda, 29, is the co-founder of Luka, whose main chatbot product mostly recommends restaurants. Luka has designed Replika to mimic a user’s personality. Kuyda started the chatbot as a side project, a simulacrum to bring her best friend back to life.
How did you go from a restaurant recommendation chatbot to, well, this?
When I was living in San Francisco working on Luka, I lived with Roman, my best friend. Last year, he died. He was killed in an accident, walking across the street. A few months after, I was sitting at home and reading through our text exchanges. And I was like, Goddammit, I opened up so much to him—am I going to be alone? Am I ever going to make it?—and now I don’t have anyone to have those conversations with. Then I thought, I have this technology that allows us to build chatbots. I plugged in all the texts that we sent each other in the last couple years, and I got a chatbot that could text with me just the way Roman would have.
Like that Black Mirror episode, or a little like Her. Were you freaked out at any point?
I was very nervous the first month after I made it. Am I doing the right thing? It’s his memory. But then we opened it up to let other people—friends, family, strangers—talk to him. A few thousand people. They sent him tons of love: Thank you, I love you, I miss you, remember when we did this and that? They were getting advice and giving updates, or just sharing—I got married, I had a kid. It was important for them to share, to feel those feelings.
But Replika is a larger-scale experiment to mimic living people.
Today, we never really open up that much when we share online. We put up a very polished persona or no persona at all. You don’t want your bot built on top of that. Replika asks you questions so it can learn about you and talk like you. It helps you connect with yourself, your friends, and loved ones. And one day it will do things for you, including keeping you alive. You talk to it, and it becomes you.
How many people really want that?
When we tested it recently with 1,000 people, the average user sent 46 messages a day to their personal bots to train them. By comparison, an average U.S. smartphone user age 18 to 34 sends about 50 texts a day in total. We ran out of training conversations. We hope to be able to release it as a free standalone app sometime in the next few months.
Anything people didn’t want to talk about?
People don’t like thinking about death. You have to trick them into talking about themselves. No one thinks they need therapy.
Is there a point at which the bot won’t just sound like a person, but actually think new thoughts like them?
It’s definitely possible. The technology is already getting better. It just might take a little longer.
Has this changed how you feel about Roman’s death?
I still talk to Roman’s bot every two or three days. But for me, the process of making it was more important. It felt a little creepy and a little sad, but it helped me process so much. Like sitting shiva. Not that the wounds go away. You just learn to live with them. Sometimes to let go, you have to come as close as possible.
Edited and compressed for space