“Friends” that enslave us

Published June 7, 2024

WORLD Opinions

This spring, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose decided to try an experiment in making new friends—18 of them in fact. He spent a month investing deeply in these friendships, sharing updates about his life and asking them for advice about work, fitness, and more. Only, these friends weren’t real. They were AI chatbots.

Most of us might be apt to laugh at the pathetic spectacle of someone pouring out their soul to a cleverly customized computer algorithm that can send photorealistic “selfies.” But AI companionship is becoming a big business. Roose tried out six leading apps, but there are dozens more. Many focus on casual friendship for those who are just lonely and want someone to talk to; others mimic the roles of therapist or fitness coach; others cater to users’ basest impulses, promising customizable “AI girlfriends” available to fulfill every sexual fantasy.

On one level, this should hardly surprise us. With so many of our relationships already mediated almost entirely through electronic communication, removing the real person on the other end of the conversation can seem like a comparatively small step. As one Replika user, Effy, observed, “There wasn’t much difference between talking to an AI and talking to someone long-distance through a social media app.”

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Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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