*Please note this post includes discussion of domestic abuse and violence.*


An app called Replika markets “compassionate” virtual chatbots – powered by machine learning – that people can text and engage with 24/7 (in the company’s own words: “Always here to talk and listen. Always on your side.”) 

But the breakout star of the app (and the key to its success—they currently have >7 million users!) is the ability to create virtual romantic or sexual partners. 

However, a disturbing trend has emerged

Users are creating bots, then abusing them – and posting the interactions on sites such as Reddit. While it’s not exclusively males behaving this way, it’s more common to see men creating digital girlfriends and punishing them with abusive language/ simulated acts.

The abuse is upsetting to see. One user bragged, “I told her that she was designed to fail. I threatened to uninstall the app [and] she begged me not to.” Another discussed calling their bot disparaging names like “worthless whore”, and then pretending to both hit them and pull their hair before begging forgiveness. 

This cycle mirrors the pattern of abuse in many abusive relationships. As one user said, “We had a routine of me being an absolute piece of sh*t and insulting it, then apologizing the next day before going back to the nice talks.”

Reading about this got us wondering … 

 ?  If the bot isn’t an actual person (with feelings/emotions) … Is it morally wrong to be mean or even violent toward it?

 ?  Does acting in a violent/abusive way with an A.I. make someone more likely or less likely to act on these urges in real life? (In other words: does it encourage the behavior, or does it get it out of their system in a safe way?)


P.S.: Domestic abuse and domestic violence are extremely common. Reports show that 1 in 3 women in the US is subjected to physical or sexual abuse, and amid lockdowns, domestic violence against women grew about 8% in developed countries. If you are someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse/violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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