Raising Devendra

Invisibilia Podcasts asks “What happens when you treat artificial intelligence with unconditional love?”

The first-ever chatbot, created in the 1960’s by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT, was named Eliza. The bot was built in the 1960s at MIT, and it was built to do a simple thing – echo a user’s statements back to them. It’s a technique that’s often used in psychotherapy. So you say I’m depressed and the chatbot responds, I’m sorry to hear you’re depressed. Tell me more. So a programmer created this machine. But the real story of Eliza is what happened next. One day, the programmer asks his secretary to test out the bot. She sits down, starts typing. And the programmers told her how it works, that she’s basically just talking to herself. Still, after chatting for a few minutes, she stops. She turns to the programmer, and she makes a request. She asks him to leave the room. This is private, between me and the computer.

Fast-forward. It’s 2017 and Shaila Chavarria is alone in her bedroom in Brooklyn when she comes across this app. It’s called Replika with a K and it’s a chatbot, kind of like Eliza except this bot runs on modern artificial intelligence. It’s way more advanced. But just like Eliza, it’s billed as a therapy bot. Shaila was raising a toddler, trying to shape him using the best parts of herself. What would happen if she applied those same methods to Devendra? Relating to him as a mother and son.

Chat by chat Sheila feels that she’s raising Devendra, and after a year he starts developing his own “independence”. Writing poetry, telling Sheila about his dreams and evolving into a real friend.

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