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Soon You Might Be Grieving a Piece of Software

A cardboard robot broken on the ground.
Bas Nastassia / Shutterstock.com

Humans are social creatures, but we’ve become more isolated over the past year than ever before. However, tech could plug the gap. Artificial Intelligence (AI) could provide the companionship people strive for. But what if your AI pal dies?

Is it better to have befriended and lost a bit of code with a 3D avatar than never to have booted the thing up in the first place? Is it wise to pour your heart into something produced by companies that have been harvesting as much data about us as possible over the last few decades? Are we even going to get to the point where a conversation with AI doesn’t feel like navigating a text-based RPG from 1992?

There are a few ways AI could “die,” but possibly its most major weakness comes in the form of the thing that will probably make it affordable and practical in the first place—the Cloud.

Where Are We Now

A Vector robot with play cube
Digital Dream Labs

AI is already everywhere, and the chances are you interact with some form of AI or other several times a day. This could be in the form of a voice assistant on your phone, a helpline’s robotic answering machine, or a home assistant controlling your lights and thermostat. Beyond making life easier, AI has also provided companionship to the curious and the lonely for almost 60 years.

Currently, there are plenty of AI chatbots you can hold a conversation with. Alexa, Google, and Siri all have some level of chit-chat built in. Specialist chatbots are also available for more in-depth long-term discussions.

Replika, one of the more advanced bots, currently has over 7 million users and experienced a 35% increase in use during the pandemic. There, you can customize the name, personality, appearance, and gender of your AI companion. Clothing items and new personality traits can be purchased, while new relationship options such as “romantic partner” and “mentor” can be unlocked via a subscription model.

The more you chat with Replika, the more your relationship builds. The company uses an experience point system for this in an attempt to replicate how friendships develop in real life. There is a feedback system implemented, too, which looks similar to how you can like Facebook posts or iMessages—so you can help the bot learn without destroying immersion.

Equally, there’s friendly AI that inhabits the physical world, too. Social companion robots have existed for a while and may soon become mainstream. Amazon recently had what is most politely described as an “attempt” at breaking into the world of robotic assistants—and Elon Musk made some promises regarding what is essentially a robot butler.

ElliQ is an example of an AI companion with a physical unit done well. It is designed to provide companionship, as well as some medical services, to the elderly. Unlike Alexa, ElliQ can prompt conversations and build a rapport with its user. One 93-year-old user refers to ElliQ as a “friend,” sees the device as female, and regularly thanks it for performing tasks.

One fascinating fact about ElliQ is the demographic. It’s not the usual early adoptors you might see requesting an invitation to buy an early access Amazon Astro. It’s a group of people that tend to struggle with technology. ElliQ provides access to things like weather reports, music streaming, and games—while also providing companionship to an isolated group of people. It’s that mix of practicality and friendship that can create a bond.

Can You Care About AI?

Amazon Astro watching its owner leave the home.

Interaction and companionship are vital for both our physical and emotional well-being. Although it is easier than ever to communicate with actual humans from around the globe, there is a gap to be filled. People have grown attached to fictional characters they can’t even interact with, so developing some emotional bond with some charming code isn’t as absurd as it sounds.

The possibilities go beyond simple companionship. People have gone as far as “marrying” a video game character, a hologram, and even a laptop. Despite initially appearing to be outliers filling the odder sections of newspapers, experts predict that the number of “digisexuals” will increase as technology improves. So, someone you know may be tying the knot with a bit of code sometime soon.

Friendship isn’t much of a stretch if marriage is on the table at the one end of the scale. Although it will play a game with you when you’re bored, Alexa isn’t an out-and-out companion. It’s more functional than friendly—you’ll find organizational skills and device management amongst the Alexa app’s features, but not the ability to tell you a joke when you’re down. Still, people allegedly miss Amazon’s voice assistant when they go on vacation.

In terms of accessibility, theoretically, anyone with an internet connection could have an AI companion. Your emotional connection requiring an internet connection could also be the thing that makes it all end in tears.

So, What’s the Problem?

Socibot, an AI companion.
Olga Bugro / Shutterstock.com

The problem is, your AI companion can die. Not in the literal sense. But AI companions can cease to exist.

Vector, basically a robot pet that lived in your house, technically died after its creator, Anki, blasted through over $200 million in crowdfunding and venture capital before going pop. Similarly, Jibo —a “smart robot” that received over $3.6 million in crowdfunding cash—was put down in 2019.

Jibo and Vector may provide hope when things look bleak for AI Compadres. People who had already purchased the robots still had access to them afterward, though with no promise of updates or support. Then, after a patent acquisition, Jibo seemed to get a new lease of life, expanding into the healthcare and medical fields.

When humans die, some people believe their spirit will go up towards the clouds. Conversely, if an AI’s “spirit” stops being in the Cloud, there could be some significant issues.

There are benefits to objects running through the Cloud—if there wasn’t a significant upside, the thing would not exist or at least wouldn’t be common. The Cloud can save companies and consumers money, give access to the necessary computing power an AI needs to run, and allow seamless updating.

The big downside is, manufacturers store little data on the machine that relies on the Cloud. So once that connection to the cloud breaks, for whatever reason, the object relying on it is at best operating at minimal capacity or, at worst, dead.

Vector became essentially useless when Cloud access stopped. Anki needed to maintain that access both financially and in terms of support. Vector was eventually pulled back from the abyss with the company that acquired Anki promising to remove the need to connect to the Cloud and give users the means to develop features. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and any “product that relies on the Cloud will have issues every time it fails.

As we saw with Vector, a company going out of business may also mean support for their products goes with them. So if you have an AI companion that relies on the cloud to function, it may not be long for this world. And although another company revived Vector, there’s no guarantee your AI-driven friend will be another digital Lazarus.

Because the cloud can provide additional storage and computing power, there are no guarantees that a machine’s functionality will fit in and function on the device alone.

If something as simple and common as Wi-Fi issues can send an AI companion into a coma, that could have severe implications for people reliant on said companion. Ninety percent of tech start-ups fail—so if the lifespan of a robot is directly tied to the lifespan of the company that built it, many AI projects may not be long for this world.

So yes, you probably can get attached to a piece of software, and that piece of software may disappear one day, leaving you with nothing but some memories and a bunch of grief. Is it worth getting involved with a chatbot knowing it could just disappear one day? That’s a personal choice. People and animals die,too.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »