Valentines Day Special - The Ethics of Chatbots#

What’s this?

This is summary of Wednesday 14th February’s Data Ethics Club Valentine’s day special discussion, where we spoke and wrote about the article Artificial intelligence, from the Privacy Guarantor stop to the chatbot “Replika”. Too many risks for children and emotionally fragile people. Our session began with a brief presentation from Maddie Williams, who wrote her masters dissertation on people in relationships with chatbots. The article summary was written by Huw Day and edited by Jessica Woodgate. This discussion summary was written by Jessica Woodgate, who tried to synthesise everyone’s contributions to this document and the discussion. “We” = “someone at Data Ethics Club”. Huw Day helped with the final edit.

Article Summary#

The article we read this week discusses the clampdown by the Italian authorities last year (February 2023) on the chatbot service “Replika”, after finding it to be in breach of EU data protection regulation. The AI-powered chatbot was initially advertised as a virtual friend experience, and later expanded to offer services simulating romantic/sexual relationships for a paid subscription (up to $69.99 a year). The idea for the service was sparked when one of the co-founders, Eugenia Kuyda, had a close friend who died. She replicated her friend in a bot, training it on their texts and later releasing it to the public. Today, the application learns from user input over time to “replicate” your personality, “becoming you”. Many use Replika to simulate a friendship or even a therapist. These simulated relationships have been found to benefit people’s mental health, improve emotional well-being, reduce stress, prevent self-harming, and intervene during episodes of suicide ideation.

An appeal of Replika is the chatbot’s ability to “remember”. Unlike popular large language models (LLMs) like Chat GPT3, which are only able to store information from one conversation, Replika tracks information shared by users. This caused controversy during an update where Replika bots “forgot” information about their users. In one case, a parent using the service as a companion for their non-verbal autistic daughter had to withdraw use as the daughter “missed her friend” too much. There have been reported suicides, of users left heartbroken by their virtual partners that no longer remembering them.

This draws attention to the minimal safeguarding the site had in place for children and vulnerable individuals when the article was written. There was no age verification in place, and no blocking of the app if a user declared they are underage. The features manipulating mood bring about increased risks for young or otherwise emotionally vulnerable individuals, who may be more affected by relational interactions. Replies have been found to be in conflict with safeguarding; several reviews on two main app stores flag sexually inappropriate contents, and until recently the chatbot was capable of sexting. There are many examples of the different ways people interact with Replika on its reddit page.

How do we feel about the perceived benefits of using chatbots (e.g. as a therapist, role play to teach social etiquette, friend/companion for those who are lonely/isolated)? Do the benefits outweigh the ethical costs?#

The role of chatbots as nonpersonal entities which people go to when they are vulnerable provides an opportunity to nudge people away from isolation. For example, chatbots could provide reminders at the end of each conversation to talk to real people or a therapist. On the other hand, pushing therapy onto users who might already be outcast from society in some way (e.g. if they spend more time online than with other people) could just alienate them further.

The ability of chatbots to navigate and regulate situations where they encounter vulnerable individuals could be improved by training models on synthetic (or real) data of prototypical therapy situations. More input by trained psychologists could enhance their learning and make them more “human”. Scoping the role of therapeutic chatbots would be helped by investigating how many people who have therapeutic relationships with chatbots also speak to human therapists, or if the discussions they have with chatbots are the only discussions they have on that level.

The combination of increased interaction with chatbots and heavy advertising on social media for therapy services is likely to increase demand in society for AI chatbot therapists. Appropriating AI for therapy would not be surprising considering that the first chatbot, Eliza, was an attempt at automating psychotherapy. Using chatbots might be better than loneliness, which is increasingly prevalent. This creates a circularity, where the convenience provided by technology promotes isolation – we don’t even have to go out to get food anymore – and we then look to technology to fill the relational gaps it has caused.

Possibilities for therapeutic intervention might be outweighed by the costs of implementing technology which is too immature to handle sensitive scenarios. Can does not imply should; just because LLMs can engage in therapeutic-like conversation does not mean we should apply them in this way. Therapists are highly trained to deal with the complexities of human emotions. For example, it is not uncommon for patients to fall in love with their therapists. Human practitioners can learn techniques for recognising and dealing with such situations sensitively, yet chatbots do not have the same level of awareness to address this. It is not just the ability of technology that we should question, but also the setting in which it is administered.

Services like Replika seem to be advertised to certain groups of people much more than others, such as those with who struggle to maintain fulfilling relationships or who are experiencing extreme isolation. This raises the issue of how to care for vulnerable users. Caring for children online might seem easier or more obvious than caring for vulnerable adults, as there are clearer boundaries and various techniques we can use, e.g. age blocks and parental monitoring. However, children’s platforms are not infallible and there are ways around moderation. We wondered if, in the case of adults, consent should be explicitly asked regarding the kinds of discussions you want to have. For example, asking to switch between platonic interactions and sexual or romantic conversations (watch the movie ‘Her’ (2013)). Humans would mostly be able to pick up when conversation is veering into these territories; building a model that can read social cues (e.g. tone) is more difficult. Identifying when bots should ask for consent could be helped by thinking about how we negotiate consent with our friends and colleagues.

Preying on the vulnerability of users to foster engagement and generate income can be interpreted as an exploitative and abusive relationship. In their video, they say “for some, it’s already too real. Replika users are having the kind of intense, even obsessive experiences that make people worry that machines will eventually replace human interaction”. Extreme emotional dependence on chatbots could be framed as an addition problem. If we understand it this way, the best way of supporting users would be to wean them off bots, or completely cut off their access.

There is a grey area of when relationships with bots become problematic enough to require intervention. To some extent, we should be able to do what we want in the privacy of our homes; we could compare this to people forming loving relationships with inanimate objects. Our thoughts around these matters could be guided by examining the kind of input that people invest in a relationship. For example, someone who is in love with a tree might spend a great deal of time watering and caring for that tree. Viewing this from the perspective of care put into the relationship might help us to understand and accept it. Chatbots could provide a safe space as a relationship “sand pit” for people who have anxiety or have experienced trauma. Nevertheless, we still feel some level of concern; the immaturity of the technology makes it risky (it has not reached the level of Blade Runner replicas yet).

The output of tools is largely what people project onto them, rather than original content of the tools themselves. Chatbots are designed to mimic their users; preying on narcissistic propensities to fall in love with things trained to parrot us. In Replika’s story video they say “it’s always fascinated, rightly so, by you, because you are the most interesting person in the universe”. Replika’s safety blog talks about the model’s upvote/downvote system, which “can cause (it) to prioritise likeability over accuracy. When users upvote responses that agree with them, the model learns from this data and may start agreeing too much with users’ statements. As a result, the model may respond positively to users’ controversial statements driven by negative emotions, curiosity, or the intention to manipulate or abuse the model rather than reason or facts.”. Apps prioritising likeability over accuracy seems to be the norm; enshittification is everywhere. We would be interested in hearing the view of advocates for Replika. When a technology is financially motivated, it is difficult to know the true intentions behind its creation.

How should data be stored for these chatbots?#

One way to address this would be through repositories that provide packages for transferrable data (e.g. academic research repositories), in case platforms fold. Healthcare professionals supporting those who have perhaps been addicted to a platform should have access to this data. However, it’s important to consider that most repositories are open access and open source, which raises privacy concerns. Chatbots are witness to possibly extremely sensitive data, with very personal information. Providing and protecting access to data isn’t the only concern here; platforms should also be more transparent about how data is used. GDPR gives us more autonomy to access our data, but that doesn’t tell us much about what has been done with it. Many of these models (e.g. LLMs) are black box and unexplainable. Even when models can be explained, platforms might not want to because do so might put their business at risk e.g. by giving away intellectual property.

This leads some of us to argue that chatbots should not store any data; it should be immediately destroyed. The repercussions of data being mishandled or breached are too risky, and the internet is no longer seen as a reliable archive.

After our discussion, we came across this article on a report by Mozilla’s *Privacy Not Included project which outlines the extent at which data collected by chatbots is sold on:

“For example, CrushOn.AI collects details including information about sexual health, use of medication, and gender-affirming care. 90% of the apps may sell or share user data for targeted ads and other purposes, and more than half won’t let you delete the data they collect. Security was also a problem. Only one app, Genesia AI Friend & Partner, met Mozilla’s minimum security standards.”

What responsibility does Replika have for the wellbeing of their users, particularly those affected by any “forgetting” from software updates?#

People deserve to be better informed about the technology they are interacting with; it should be made explicit that they are interacting with a sophisticated parrot. Platforms like Replika also need to mitigate for the lack of diversity in data and ascertain if the technology is learning cyclically from its responses, which will contribute to increasingly niche training. It’s likely that common societal biases (e.g. misogyny, racism) perpetuate if intervention is not made. In addition, secondary effects like environment harm caused by energy costs should be accounted for.

Bonus Question: What change would you like to see on the basis of this piece? Who has the power to make that change?#

Some of us think that while we are continue enshittifying everything, destroying our archive of knowledge, and harming ourselves and each other, AI should be stopped. Don’t create the torment nexus.



  • Nina Di Cara, Senior Research Associate, University of Bristol, ninadicara, @ninadicara

  • Huw Day, Data Scientist, Jean Golding Institute, @disco_huw

  • Vanessa Hanschke, PhD Interactive AI, University of Bristol

  • Euan Bennet, Lecturer, University of Glasgow, @DrEuanBennet

  • Amy Joint, freerange publisher, @amyjointsci

  • Lucy Bowles, Data Scientist @ Brandwatch (soon to be not… going on a sabbatical!)

  • Paul Lee, investor

  • Virginia Scarlett, Open Data Specialist, HHMI Janelia Research Campus

  • Kamilla Wells, Citizen Developer, Australian Public Service, Brisbane

  • Aidan O’Donnell, Data journalist, Cardiff

  • Chris Jones, Data Scientist, Amsterdam