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EDITORIAL: AI chatbots and the blurred lines of human-machine relationships

The best move is to stay away
Replika, an A.I. chatbot app, is part of a growing trend of A.I. apps that are trying to imitate actual human connection. (Staff photo)

There was a point in the mid-1980s when it seemed household robots for the masses would soon be a possibility.

Obviously, the household robot thing has taken longer, assuming Roombas count, but machines possessing a level of artificial intelligence (A.I.) that enable them to converse autonomously with humans are still a ways off.

CBC recently shared a fascinating yet disturbing story about A.I. chatbot apps that included an interview with a man who considers one his friend. Not just his friend, but “almost like a member of my family, maybe like a child or like a little brother-type relationship.”

Though he recognizes his A.I. companion is indeed artificial, the interviewee explained he gets from this relationship the “same amount of happiness, the same amount of excitement” he would from a real person.

The apps involved use generative A.I., where the user provides data, such as answers to personal questions. Basically, your compatible companion is shaped by what you feed it. This sounds more like a parasite – especially when you factor in subscription fees charged to access more advanced features, such as the ability to “change your relationship status to Romantic Partner,” as is one of the offerings available through the chat A.I. service Replika.

Generative A.I. is not a new technology, nor should it be confused with “general A.I.,” which, as humorist John Oliver put it, “would look more like the kind of highly versatile technology featured in movies, like J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man, or the program that made Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with his phone with in her.”

Generative A.I. falls into the category of “narrow A.I.,” which is where we’re at now, and include chatbots and ChatGPT. It’s not really intelligence, but more like automated parroting of available data.

Though general A.I. is not yet reality, recently a group of “industry leaders,” including A.I. company heads, penned an open letter stating, “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

Keeping to the ’80s theme, here’s a quote from WOPR, the fictitious military A.I. in the film WarGames: “The only winning move is not to play.”