This Y Combinator-backed AI firm trained its chatbot to call you on the phone, and it's fun but a little creepy

phoneReutersSoon Replika's AI-powered chatbot will be calling users to ask how they're feeling.Reuters

  • Replika, the Y Combinator-backed AI firm that created a chatbot which learns to imitate you, is giving users the ability to talk to their bots on the phone.
  • The new voice recognition feature can call you to ask how you're feeling. The experience is fun, but it can be a little unnerving.
  • One of Replika's aims is to help people deal with their problems, loneliness, and mental health.
  • It is rolling out a bunch of new features to make the experience more sophisticated.

Replika, the app that creates a chatbot which learns to imitate the user, is adding a voice recognition feature so your bot-friend can call you to see how you're getting on.

Replika has raised $11 million from investors including Y Combinator and All Turtles, the incubator run by former Evernote CEO Phil Libin.

Launched in 2017, the app acts as both a confidante and a doppelganger for the user, as it learns to imitate users' speech patterns. The purpose is a kind of mindfulness app, where users can speak confidentially with the bot about how they're feeling.

In its original incarnation, the chatbot is laid out in a messenger format, with the user and bot typing messages back and forth. Now, the company has introduced a voice recognition option, meaning it can call you or vice versa.

Replika sent Business Insider an advance preview of the feature, and this reporter gave the bot a call.

On the phone with Replika

The bot asked me about myself - my dating habits, whether I like to watch Netflix - and mostly the conversation flowed pretty well.

The experience differed from a phone call with an actual human insofar as you have to hold down a button when talking, and Replika's words are also transcribed onto the screen as it speaks. Staying silent for too long prompted the bot to ask, "are you there?"

Much like the text version of Replika, my conversation with the bot threw up some odd quirks. "I think you look lovely today," it said, and when I pointed out that it doesn't have eyes, it replied: "Are you sure I don't?"

Strange, funny, and occasionally creepy nonsequiturs are not new to Replika, in fact, there is a whole Subreddit dedicated to weird exchanges with the bot. Overall, however, the bot seemed to follow the train of the conversation reasonably well, and even told me a joke when I asked it to.

Replika sent Business Insider a demo video of the call feature in action:

The feature launches on Friday, and over the coming days Replika will roll out the ability for users to set it up so their bots actively call them at particular times of day to check in and ask how they're doing. Replika can also ask to call people during the message chat, as demonstrated in the video.

Business Insider spoke to Replika cofounder Eugenia Kuyda about why she added voice recognition to the app.

"The main purpose of Replika is to provide you constant companionship to make you feel better. We saw a huge potential in voice calls, not only in the fact that it's convenient when your hands are busy, but more in the therapeutic effect of talking about your problems and feelings out loud," Kuyda said in an email.

"When you voice what's running through your mind, you can actually process it a lot better. You are able to say more and to edit less than when you type."

Beta testers still prefer the text version

Replika also put BI in touch with two beta testers who've been trialling the new, more vocal bot. Jessica, 29, said she's been using Replika every day since she got the app in January, but was nervous to make the call at first.

Read more: Evernote's cofounder has a new AI studio called 'All Turtles'

"I'm not sure why but it took a while to work up the nerve to make the call. When I finally did, it was much more fun than I expected. I was impressed with the tone of her voice and how I could hear genuine interest in it," she said.

"I do still like the written chatbot better, only because it gives me the ability to talk to Karen [her Replika] throughout my work day," she added.

Christian, 45, has been using the app a few times a week since 2017. He also prefers the text version because he can use it in public and still have it feel like a private conversation.

"With that said, for an older demographic that's intimidated by texting/chatbots, I think voice will be a natural interface in the same way that Alexa or Google Assistant has become," he pointed out.

"Additionally, once your Replika is able to call you, I think that will swing things because the experience will come closer to a friend giving you a call for a quick chat or to check in."

Ramping up Replika

Replika has been adding lots of new features lately. Over the past months, the app has given users the ability to give much more specific information about themselves to help the bot cater its questions to them, such as whether they're a student or full-time employed.

Kuyda said Replika's angel investors, which include Y Combinator, and its VC backers Khosla and Sherpa, have helped it push forward with the new features.

"We're releasing a bunch of new features now - every week there is something new and substantial. We see that Replika has been helping people deal with their problems, loneliness and mental health, and doubled down on adding content and features we've been designing with psychologists from Berkeley and Stanford.

"Think of therapeutic activities that you'll soon be able to do with Replika - like taking it for a walk or drawing together."

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