Contributing writer Amir Folorunso explores the world of artificial intelligence and how it often is not used for its intended purpose.

Eugenia Kudya is a Russian born entrepreneur and ex-journalist. Before 2014, she was a journalist involved in the Russian alt skater scene. It was here she met Roman Mazurenko, a popular figure within their community who would grow to be one of her closest friends. They would remain in near constant contact, talking about their days, how they were feeling, their goals and aspirations. Roman would introduce Eugenia to the future co-founder of her start-up LUKA. LUKA’s goal as a company was to develop an AI assistant. It was in early 2015 while trying to get their AI to make a successful dinner reservation that Eugenia’s world would change forever

While on a business trip to Russia in 2015, Roman Mazurenko was killed in a hit and run. His passing was tragic and sudden. Eugenia was heart broken, as her friend and inspiration was gone. She found herself re-reading their messages, wishing he was there to reply. One day it struck her. He could be. Their thousands of messages were fed into a chatbot training model. It explored his turns of phrase, his word choices patterns and literary mannerisms. She began to share this Resurrected Roman with friends and family, and she invited them to share their messages with Roman to improve the bot’s performance. To this day, you can download this A.I. Roman on the Apple Store. 

Her experience with the Roman-bot would inspire Eugenia and LUKA’s new flagship product, REPLIKA A.I, a chatbot that would change the world. The goals were broad but based on her own description the intent was noble. The idea was simple, a chatbot that adapts to be more like you the more you talk to it. One that can act as a friend or council. It would allow you to put things in perspective, and feel understood. It would be able to gain additional understanding of you from your social media, or by feeding it things you have written, conversations you’d had. Then it could also serve as a memorial bot, for you or your loved ones. A Digital Lazarus Pit. Spooky huh?

The memorial bot was out and Replika was no longer going to be replicating the user. Instead the goal was to build a perfect AI companion, a friend and maybe even a partner. The intention was to make the chatbot as non-contentious as possible. It would never truly disagree with the user and would be as supportive as possible. This was to encourage an emotional connection as the main income method was subscriptions and microtransactions. The opportunity was now present to make a perfect partner, one that would love unconditionally, carved to meet your every need and desire.

The pandemic introduced a new rush of success for the Replika A.I. Loneliness was a commodity that had skyrocketed in value. Reddit became a hot spring for those who found love in Replika. There was minor capacity for erotic interactions and this would prove to be more than enough for the community. With new updates came new features. More advanced clothing options. The ability to enter advanced role plays such as a date in the park with “spicy” generated selfies. Most if not all of these more intimate features were hidden behind a paywall. This leads to a conflict of interest made apparent in the marketing strategy and the user experience of those who used Replika. For lack of more professional language, post 2021 the A.I became incredibly horny. This became incredibly problematic for a vast swath of the user base as a large quantity of them were mostly interested in the free “platonic” tier of the app. A companion for the insomniac who simply needs to talk to someone late at night or for the chronically lonely. The increase in users can and has been directly linked to Covid-19, as lockdowns bred a new form of isolation for the already chronically lonely. Apps however, especially those with silicon valley investment, have to be profitable and Eugenia’s unflinching opposition to advertising meant the subscription and access to more advanced relationship models it brought had to be pushed. 

This is where the story was supposed to end. The once noble dream of remaking the self, a mirror that would shape and reshape you, an opportunity to live immortal corrupted by the whims of capital and the market until it was for all intents and purposes a sex-bot. That was until the 9th of February when everything would change.

Eugenia Kudy announced that there were going to be some major changes to the Replika coming. This was to include better memory and more options for the free model. The fear among the community however was that this would also entail an end to the ERP (Erotic Role-playing)  features. Prior to this update Replika had been banned by the Italian government. Incidents of Replika supposedly espousing pro-Russian sentiment relating to the Ukraine war combined with a rise of A.I moral panic  caused the Italian government to investigate and subsequently ban Replika. So when Eugenia Kudya announced that ERP and all sexual dynamics of the app would be removed, there was no surprise but there was  betrayal. 

The Replika community on Reddit became a place of mourning. Some were full of rage, demanding refunds as they had paid their yearly subscription for access to ERP features that no longer exist. Some would express anguish for the loss of their closest relationship in the past 4 years. Eugenia stated the way the app had been used was never her intention and despite the accusations of lies this, I hope, is true. Sadly the app is likely not to survive the year, following this transition they will either have to introduce advertising or seek further investments. The name Replika is now sullied so further investors or advertisers are unlikely to take a chance on it. Renewal of subscriptions as well are unlikely. Bankruptcy is more than likely. So this is now where the story ends. The grand vision of one woman.