Can you be friends with Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is increasingly finding its way into our lives. So far, the focus has been on practical applications such as language assistants, translation tools or image generators. But can you also be friends with an AI? Petter Bae Brandtzaeg, Professor of Media Innovation at the University of Oslo, explains his experiences with relationships with different AI companions in an interview and at the 20th European Trend Day.
30 November, 2023 by
Can you be friends with Artificial Intelligence?
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

GDI: Herr Prof. Brandtzaeg, Freundschaften mit Künstlichen Intelligenzen sind eines Ihrer Forschungsthemen. Haben Sie selbst eineN persönlicheN KI-FreundIn?

Petter Bae Brandtzaeg: While I study friendships with AI, I don’t have an AI friend in the personal sense, but I have tried out several relationships with different AI companions the last seven years. My “friendship” with AI, however, is mainly related to professional and research-oriented curiosity. However, the concept fascinates me as it blurs the lines between technology and human interaction.

Was sind die Vorteile einer KI als FreundIn? Ist sie höflicher? Gibt sie bessere Empfehlungen? Zeigt sie mehr Einfühlungsvermögen?

AI friends can often be more consistent and unbiased in their interactions compared to humans. They are never tired and are more patient than any humans. AI offer the advantage of being available 24/7. In our research we find that people value easy access and time flexibility, which makes it easy to nurture the friendship. We also find that people value that AI don’t judge them, so people in our studies feel that this is a “safe space” to open up, like a personal diary. AI friends can give good recommendations as may collect information from big training data. They are often programmed for politeness and to simulate empathy, which do feels real.

Und wo liegen die Grenzen dieser Art von KI-Freundschaft? Software kann mich natürlich nicht umarmen – und was noch?

Yes, a key limitation is the absence of a tangible physical presence, which naturally accompanies the subtleties and emotional richness inherent in human interactions. Although AI companions are incapable of offering physical presence, the AI chatbot Replika have an augmented reality feature, crafting an illusion of physical presence. People then, feel that they can sit together with their AI friends eating breakfast. Our research also reveals limits that the AI companion Replika sometimes struggles to keep up with conversations, exhibiting challenges in recalling past discussions or events. This is akin to the memory limitations experienced by some humans. However, this aspect underscores the distinction between AI interactions and the multifaceted nature of human communication.

Petter Bae Brandtzaeg

Welcher Gruppe von Menschen würden Sie empfehlen, sich mit KI anzufreunden? Kleinkindern, Teenies, jungen Berufstätigen oder älteren Menschen?

AI can in principal serve many different groups, such as being an educational aid for children and teenagers, a professional assistant for young professionals, and a source of companionship for more lonely people and older adults. It can also be used for purely social entertainment and experimentation. Hence, the use and the benefit of these friendship may vary related to the individual need, and its hard to give specific recommendations for different groups. Also, because we know too little about the impact of such AI, and that different AI’s work differently. The personalisation aspect makes it possible, however, to tailor the friendship to any person.

When we "win" an AI friend: What do we lose? Do digital relationships reduce our ability to make friends with real humans? And what about you personally: Do you think you might lose something once the AI’s conquer the field of social relationships?

I believe an AI friend can be very important and valuable for many people, which also our studies shows, however relying too much on digital relationships could potentially weaken our social skill and reduce our capacity for deep, meaningful human connections and our need for social capital or social cohesion. It's important to remember that different people have different needs. It’s also important to balance our digital and real-life interactions to maintain healthy social skills. Personally, I believe the increasing role of AI in social relationships demands careful consideration. While AI can enhance certain aspects of our lives, at least for many people, it should not overshadow the irreplaceable value of human empathy, understanding, and connection. Balance and thoughtful integration are key.

Erfahren Sie mehr über Petter Bae Brandtzaeg und über KI-Freundschaften am 20. Europäischen Trendtag at the GDI. We’ll show how human intelligence and artificial intelligence are embracing the future together. And we’ll explain where personal relationships will continue to make the difference, and how our very personal relationship with our software-driven co-pilots will evolve. We’ll also present the latest research findings and the most exciting AI start-ups.

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