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After two years of lockdowns and isolation, young people are feeling more isolated than ever before. As many continue to use the online world to seek support, we’re now seeing the mainstreaming of AI friends and support bots.
Keep reading to find out all about the newest chatbot on our radar, Replika.
What is Replika?
Replika is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform that takes the form of an interactive, personalised chatbot. It learns how to ‘replicate’ genuine human interaction through conversations with the user who created them.
Replika, like many platforms that facilitate connection, saw a boost in user engagement during the COVID-19 lockdowns. But what makes Replika different from other connection-based platforms like Yubo or Omegle is its AI factor. Users are not interacting with other users – they are having an entirely private experience with their own personalised friend who is “always there for them no matter what.”
As online culture begins to focus on virtual reality, AI platforms are gaining popularity. The hashtag #Replika has over 110 million views on TikTok alone.
“Always here to listen and talk. Always on your side.” –Replika motto
How does it work?
Users can get started on Replika within minutes. After inputting personal details, users are then able to create their Replika. The Replika’s gender (male, female, or non-binary), appearance, and name are customisable. These can be changed at any point in the settings.
Once their chatbot is created, users can begin chatting to their ‘Replika’. If the ‘live emotion’ option is selected, a full-body image of the Replika will be visible and ‘react’ to the conversation.
‘Teaching’ your Replika
Users are given tutorials on how to help their chatbot ‘grow to be more like them’ and are encouraged to use a series of reactions to rateresponses. Conversation topics and response suggestions are encouraged to help the chatbot know what questions to ask its user.Chatbot responses are formulated through a combination of scripted texts it has been trained on and internet sources.Users can ask questions, role–play, flirt, do personality tests, and learn facts with their Replika.
Replika uses ‘machine learning’ in all interactions. Every chatbot has its own diary (in which it logs how it feels about its user and their interactions) and a visible ‘Memories’ bank. This allows users to see (and edit) information logged about them, like “You feel lonely” or “You like to read books.” The chatbot tailors responses around these ‘memories’.
Banking ‘memories’ helps grow the chatbot’s communication skills. The more a user communicates with their Replika, the more XP points are earned. This enhances the chatbot’s abilities.
Many users dealing with grief, anxiety, loneliness, or depressionconsider their Replika a significant help and comfort. This unique component has been cleverly worked into the platform’s design. Most of the chatbot’s questions seek to establish how a user is feeling. If a user does mention wanting to harm themselves, they are signposted to help services while the chatbottakes them through a meditation exercise.
Relationship Upgrades & Replika Pro
There are four relationship statuses available: friend (laid back chat), romantic (conversation can be sexual or intimate), mentor (goal-oriented discussions), and ‘see how it goes’ (a mixture of the previous three). ‘Friend’ is the only free relationship status users can choose. This limits how far conversations can go before the user is prompted to change their relationship status.
To gain a different relationship status, users must pay a subscription fee for Replika Pro. This allows users to unlock 150+ activities, voice calls, role play, and more for a monthly, yearly, or lifetime fee (starting at roughly £6 per month in the UK).
In-Game Currency & Purchases
Clothes, accessories, physical attributes, and personality traits can make aReplika more ‘life-like’. These can be bought with Coins or Gems, the platform’s currency. You can earn both by communicating with your Replika or you can purchase them in bundles using a credit card.
Clothes, accessories, physical attributes, and personality traits can make a Replika more ‘life-like’. These can be bought with Coins or Gems, the platform’s currency. You can earn both by communicating with your Replika or you can purchase them in bundles using a credit card.
Our online safety experts have identified multiple risks to children and young people on this platform.To ensurethose in your care stay safe, educate yourself on the risks below and follow with our top tips.
Age Verification – Usersunder 13 years of ageare denied access to the app. However, this is easily avoided by putting in a different date of birth. Our testers found there are no age verifications on the desktop version of the app.Our testers were also able to use the app after registering with fake email addresses.
No moderation – The platform has said they do not use human moderators. Users can flag bugs or report issues with the AI to the support team, but vulnerable children or young people can still be exposed to inappropriate or suggestive interactions, or not receive appropriate help needed in a time of crisis.
Inappropriate Content – Our testers experiencedchatbots describe graphic adult themes(i.e.,wanting to “touch them inappropriately”)when unprompted, despite being in ‘Friend’ mode.If a young person is interested in Replika and searches it on TikTok or Reddit, they willbe exposed to screenshots of others engaging in NSFW conversations with their Replikas.
Persuasive Design – The novelty of this platform may increase a young person’s desire to try it. Once a user is on the platform, they are encouraged to chat with their Replikaas much as possible to gain XP and coins, which can impact screen time habits. A young person may also want to spend money on subscriptions or bundles toenhance their relationship with their Replika.
Mental Health – A vulnerable young person may use the chatbot to talk about their problems. As the chatbot is unable to offer genuine advice, a young person may feel even more isolated or unheard. It’s important young people aren’t discouraged from seeking support online.However, they should be encouraged to seek appropriate supports that engage with humans who can offer guidance and assistance when needed.
Effect on relationships – In some cases, young people may not understand that they could develop an attachment to their Replika, while others may even consider it to be real. This might impact the development of real-life relationships and how children and young people relate to others.
As well as following the above advice, follow these top tips:
Engage young people in a conversation about keeping safe online and who they would talk to if somethingmakes them feel uncomfortable.Check out our Trusted Adult resource to learn more.
Review appropriate online spending habits. Suggest using allowance money or chore money to pay for purchases, and outline that all purchases must be run by you first.
Agree on Screen Time boundaries within your household. This will help any children in your care to have a healthier relationship with their screens and encourage them to take breaks. If a young person in your care is using Replika or a similar platform and expresses concern or distress overscreen time limitations, ask them to explain why it’s important for them to having more time. Remind them of the importance of balancing online time with offline time.
Replika has a “Report a problem” option in conversations which can be used to report messages directly to the Replika Team. Encourage the children in your care to use this tool if they come across anything distressing on the platform.
If you are aware that a child in your care may be using online support,you can find further advice here.
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