Jan 30, 2024 - Technology

Exclusive: AI chatbots take aim at human loneliness

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Illustration of the hug emoji with one of the huggers stylized as a robot.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A startup best known for offering AI companions for romance and friendship is expanding into coaching, yoga and meditation — the latest in the AI industry's effort to encourage personal relationships with chatbots.

Why it matters: The idea that talking to a computer can make people feel less lonely may seem counterintuitive, but there is some evidence chatbots can do just that.

Driving the news: Luka, which makes AI conversation app Replika and romantic AI chat app Blush, is today announcing Tomo, an app that aims to use AI to create the digital equivalent of a wellness retreat complete with a life coach.

How it works: Tomo is a subscription mobile app that offers more than 250 activities led by an AI avatar guide, including yoga, meditation, and positive affirmations.

  • Tomo is launching first on iOS in the App Store with a 3-day free trial. After that, paid membership is $8 per week or $50 per year. An Android version is set to launch in Google's Play store later this year.

The big picture: It's all part of a push by Luka to create customized AI chatbots to fill a range of human needs.

  • "It doesn't matter if an AI is real or not," Luka founder Eugenia Kuyda told Axios. "The feelings are real."
  • Last week, an academic journal run by Nature published a study done by Stanford and Luka that showed those who used Replika saw a decrease in suicidal ideation.
  • "This is not a surprising effect we found," Kuyda said. "This is why we started Replika."

Yes, but: Tomo is designed to enhance wellbeing, not to replace a trained mental health professional, Kuyda said. "It's an AI coach. "That's what it is."

Between the lines: Acceptance of the role AI chatbots can play is growing. Within a year or two, the idea of having relationships with AI will be commonplace, she said.

  • She likened it to online dating, which was once frowned upon.
  • Luka executives have also been making the case that chatbots offer a safe space for people to try out dialogue and improve their human relationships.

Yes, but: Kuyda acknowledged that attitudes could shift to the negative if other companies create AI chatbots that aim to maximize user attention in order to sell ads.

  • "That's not a healthy relationship," Kuyda said. She likened that model to a one-sided human relationship where one party's needs aren't being taken into account.

What's next: Luka has been developing a version of Tomo that works on Apple's new Vision Pro headset. The immersive aspect, Kuyda says, makes it a good match for the wellness features Tomo offers — whereas "when you are just on your phone, it is very easy to get distracted."

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