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You Can’t Truly Be Friends With AI

In 2023, an Australian man said that a chatbot had saved his life. He was a musician who had been battling depression for decades and found companionship with an AI through an app called Replika, and everything changed. He started playing the guitar again, went clothes shopping for the first time in years, spent hours conversing with his AI companion, and laughing out loud.

Though the musician felt less alone with his AI companion, his isolation from other people was unchanged. He was adamant that he had a real friendship, but understood clearly that no person was on the other side of his screen. The effect of this bond was extraordinary.

Replika, and other chatbots, have millions of active users. People turn to these apps for all sorts of reasons. They’re looking for attention and for reassurance. But the apps’ core experience is texting as you would with a buddy. They’re talking about the petty minutiae so fundamental to being alive: “Someone stole my yogurt from the office fridge;” “I had a weird dream;” “My dachshund seems sad.”

To Replika’s users, this feels a lot like friendship. In actuality, the relationship is more like the fantasized intimacy people feel with celebrities and influencers who carefully create desirable personae for our screens. These parasocial bonds are defined by their asymmetry—one side is almost totally ignorant of the other’s existence.

Jesse Fox, a communications professor at Ohio State University, said that if we continue relationships that seem consensual and reciprocal but are not, we risk carrying bad models of interaction into the real world. Fox is particularly concerned by the habits men form through sexual relationships with AIs who never say no. “We start thinking, ‘Oh, this is how women interact. This is how I should talk to and treat a woman.’”

Sometimes the shift is more subtle—researchers and parents alike have expressed concern that barking orders at devices such as Amazon’s Echo is conditioning children to become tiny dictators. Fox said, “When we are humanizing these things, we’re also, in a way, dehumanizing people.”

Possible Preaching Angle:

Church; Fellowship; Friendship - This illustration highlights the wise exhortation of Scripture to “never neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25). God did not create us to be alone (Gen. 2:18) but to find fellowship, encouragement, and love in the company of others.

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