The Impact of AI on Human Bonds
How Anime Shark Girls Show us The Rise of Parasocial Relationships
One of my recent favorite articles I've written was about the end of the exclusivity of human narratives on planet Earth and the potential impact it might have on our institutions and systems. But a key issue I think I forgot to cover and that I've been somewhat keeping track of in recent times is the impact of AI tools on human relationships. We've discussed the impacts on policy, economics, and society at large but I think it is just as important to think about the impact non-human intelligence will have on the way we connect and bond with each other.
How did we get here? (or why it’s all Surveillance Capitalism’s Fault)
Well for starters let’s just say that humanity as a whole is going through a loneliness epidemic (maybe you are feeling it as well) so much so that the US surgeon general released a report this Tuesday commenting on the profound impacts of this epidemic on the American society and its effects on public health. It is so bad that the report claims it can have an adverse effect just as bad as smoking in some cases. And the potential reasons for this epidemic are many, firstly, we have the “damage” that years upon years of excessive usage of social media has had on our societies and the way we relate to each other.
On top of that, we have that the most powerful and secure pieces of information in the history of humanity are the recommendation engines of the big social media giants. Where unfathomably complex, automated systems have, for years been modifying and guiding our online behavior towards, higher engagement with their platforms to optimize our retention and increase the profitability of their platforms. And we are still not sure about the long-term effects these behavior-modifying technologies have had in our societies at large.
So when you have the largest concentration of capital alongside the highest concentration of smart brains working towards optimizing our retention through social engineering, no wonder we feel the consequences on an individual and societal level. As well as a blow to our institutions, our democracies, and possibly the very foundations of human civilization.
The Streamer effect
Another factor to consider in this diagnostic is seen in the rise of streamers as a form of content that is being consumed more and more on the internet. With a stellar performance increasing from 1.1 million unique streamers to more than 9.9 million streamers in just 6 years Twitch.TV has become one of the key online video entertainment platforms. (also pushed by the financial and technical arm of its parent company Amazon) Twitch has brought to the world the phenomenon of streamers. And for those 12 of you who for some reason still don’t know what streamers are. (I know there might be some of you so I’m gonna explain) Streamers started on platforms such as JustinTV (before it was rebranded as Twitch. TV) as people playing video games and sharing the footage with a small video feed of them. But the growth of streamers outside of video games has given birth to another phenomenon of “Just chatting” streamers; people who aren’t playing one specific game but are just “sharing” their time with their viewership without a clear or a consistent theme besides just getting online and spending time “amongst” its viewers.
Of course, some streamers have optimized and min-maxed this into an art form with specific activities, or reviewing and reacting to popular videos and stuff like that. And I believe because of the consistency and incredible amount of time that these streamers have put out into the world it has led to the exponential rise of parasocial relationships.
For those who don’t know: Parasocial relationships are nothing new, in a nutshell, it’s the emotional attachment people develop towards celebrities/politicians/actors/musicians, or anyone that is a “public” figure and has a strong enough resonance with a member of its audience. It’s kinda like the fascinations teenage millennials had with Robert Pattinson in the 2010s or what we all have towards Henry Cavil today.
But now in the age of streamers, things have changed, because unlike “traditional” celebrities and other content creators, in the past when you could see a film and find them attractive, then they might say something that is aligned with your political views or your tastes. But still, the chances of you seeing or consuming content from your celebrity were somewhat limited. But now with streamers, we have a quantity of content from a specific person towards its audience the likes of which we’ve never seen before and it starts to show its impact.
Regular streaming for a profitable and well-known streamer is a full-time job so it could be 6 hours every day 5 or even every day of the week. So if you do the math after a couple of months you could see hear and “share” hundreds of hours per month with someone else through the screen and after a while, it is almost inevitable that the viewers develop an emotional attachment towards their favorite streamers and I find that to be incredible. People have claimed they feel like the streamers they follow become a part of their routine, a part of their daily lives. Almost like a close friend or a not-so-close family member( depending on your family dynamics, but I ain’t judging) But now let’s talk about anime shark girls…
Rise of the Anime Sharkgirls (and other types as well)
Ok, this is a bit of a stepping stone here, We’ve seen the loneliness epidemic exacerbated by the abuse of social media as behavior-modifying tools, then we see the rise of streamers and the never-ending wave of content and the development of parasocial relationships but I think the phenomenon of Vtubers (Virtual YouTubers, or Virtual Streamers) are streamers that for privacy reasons or just because it was more aligned with the target audience, decide that instead of creating content and streaming using their face and real-world presence they use virtual avatars (mainly anime-inspired 2D or even 3D rendered models) and thanks to different software they can be tracked and move their virtual avatars like puppets while they are the ones.
This is somewhat of a niche but an ever-growing trend (that has recently become extremely profitable and popular) especially in Asian countries or anywhere where subcultures close to anime, video games, and the overlap of both where more and more VStreamers and Vtubers are becoming popular.
We can also attribute other cultural factors such as idol culture in countries such as Japan and Korea, have been a boost to the normalization and a lack of backlash against Vtubers on the internet. This proves that human capacity for attachment goes beyond our species and that humans can bond and form emotional attachments with almost anything.
But we have to take into account these parasocial relationships from the other side as well because, just like with the fleshy “real” human streamers, their audience, even though a very cherished community that is financially supporting them, are nothing but numbers on a big crowd. After a while inevitably humans can't keep track, care, and think for each individual as a single entity and just mashes everyone together into a single blob. So the phenomena of parasocial relationships can leave many people unfulfilled with these relationships and craving more of a connection and more feedback from someone on a one-to-one basis. Because it is impossible (and also not their job) for a streamer to have deep emotionally fulfilling relationships with each of the hundreds of thousands of followers they have. But what if they could?
Chatbot Girlfriends: A Cautionary Tale
Now, for a long time, people have had strange relationships with inanimate objects (humanity has found new and exciting ways to give themselves pleasures since probably before the Romans) from Greek myths of sculptors falling in love with a piece of marble and asking the gods themselves to bring it to life. But also talking with machines we have the example of the first “therapist Chatbot” created in the 60s where some people reported having very positive experiences with an incredibly rudimentary chatbot that pretended to be a therapist. However, it’s interesting that the human capacity and need for connection can allow us to bond with so many different types of people, animals, objects, or avatars that it can be a bit creepy but I find some of these cases endearing to be honest. So, now we have increasingly complex AI systems and tools that could be used for developing emotional companions with other humans. What do we do now?
Well, there is one company that is showing a somewhat gloomy preview of things to come, and that is Replika. It is a chatbot company offering the service of an AI companion. It started as a project of a developer who trained a chatbot on texts of her recently deceased friend and after she felt how this chatbot helped her during her grieving process she decided to expand upon this concept and create a chatbot that could be built and customized to each users experience and history. Soon enough the company started to grow and grow and the chatbots became more than just a way to remember or connect with people that were no longer with us, but into a more complex service that eventually allowed users to customize the type of companions they wanted (friend, sibling, parent, and even romantic partner or a spouse)
Now, as an added feature for the premium users that paid for their Replika, they were allowed to have sexual conversations with their AI chatbots, and that, of course, increased the connection and closeness that some users had with their Replikas. This sadly led to some users abusing this functionality and treating their chatbot partners in such ways that would get them in jail or probably even to a court in Geneva if these were humans we were talking about.
And, because of cases like this, and a very loose policy for preventing underage users to get into the sexting chatbot feature with just a simple payment. Replika decided to shut down the sexting and sexual component of its chatbots… and all hell broke loose. Users were furious at the company, and they started a massive wave of complaints. Posts on the subreddit of Replika of people describing as if a partner had left them or as if someone had irreversibly damaged a loved one. The backlash was so much that Replika had to reverse their decision and allowed all users who already had the sexual roleplay feature, could keep it but new users would not be able to get it ( sorry for those of you reading this that got excited…) So yeah… human attachment and AI that’s a fun topic for research.
So, are we all gonna become Joaquin Phoenix now?
As we continue to move at an exponential rate into the future, AI tools are going to be getting better and better it is inevitable. But does that mean that we will soon be in a scenario such as the movie HER, where people are more and more falling in love with AIs because they can be trained optimized, and possibly develop the most profound skillset for enchanting humans regardless of whether they are lonely incel who reposts Andrew Tate’s videos or a highly social woman with a deep-rooted network and support network of friends and family? Humans aren’t that different when it comes to our emotional and bonding needs so if an AI can beat any chess player why not soon an AI could “beat” any human in the game of seduction and connection?
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So what happens if we develop Virtual reality that is ever increasingly better and we can share finally a virtual space with an AI partner and it feels like it is real enough? Is it a bad thing? I think it depends because for some people social interaction might be too overwhelming or demanding and an AI companion could be a great solution for them ( also considering chronically ill people who are incapable of leaving their house and socializing with other humans in a “normal” manner)
But, who knows, maybe in the near future AI will be a guide to help us have better social performance, overcome our social anxieties and develop deeper human connections and bonds. Or it could be the “replacement” of our human connections because it represents a partner that is always in a good mood, always agrees with you, and is never in a bad mood or disagrees with you(unless you’d like that) Which seems very comfortable from a certain perspective, you don’t need to put in the effort and growth required for a real human relationship. But that is a very dangerous and scary idea if you ask me (especially considering the history of abuse towards chatbots we’ve seen before.
In the end, I ain’t one to judge other people if they are happy with their AI partners. But the closer we move towards that possibility being a commonplace occurrence, we need to consider what happens, when our AIs become advanced enough, and we combine that with the existing technology to breed human embryos without the need for a human womb, people could arrange to have their genetic material alongside a “healthy genetically randomized” other half of the required parts and have a child who’s parents are a human and an AI.
Now that might be a stretch but most of the pieces for that to become a reality are already here or close enough. So how are we as a society going to deal with that? Hopefully in a healthy and empowering way where this technology could help and assist us to live more fulfilling lives with healthier relationships and profound connections with others.