Making friends and close relationships with chatbots

What is a chatbot?  It is an artificial intelligence (AI) program that can simulate a conversation with a person using natural language. With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for chatbots increased to provide the users a friendly companion as well as automated customer service to get supplies during the crisis, driving an important growth and usage of chatbots in our daily life.

Many decades ago, one of the first chatbots was Eliza, a simple, female chatbot, which simulates a psychotherapist. Since then, chatbots are used in different areas like education, smart assistants at home, automated customer service and even as virtual therapists or friends.

Illustration: ELIZA from wikipedia

Nowadays popular chatbots Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant entered our home, they can receive orders to turn on/off a light, say the weather, read the news or answer questions in specific domains. However even though they are useful to complete orders at home, they are still far from having a fluid conversation and build a strong relationship. The big internet companies claim that their products are smart assistants with “artificial intelligence”.  The truth however is that they just have a “narrow” artificial intelligence, which is still far from really having a fluid conversation and interaction.

To understand a relationship with a chatbot it is important to consider at least two of the most important models for relationship formation (Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (Eds.)) (2009) [1]. One influential model was proposed by psychologist George Levinger. His model consists of five stages: acquaintanceship, buildup, continuation, deterioration, and termination. Another influential model was proposed by M. L. Knapp consisting of two main stages: the coming-together stage and coming-apart stage. From these models it follows that building a relationship with a chatbot is not an easy process, and we need to deal with some challenges.

Although chatbots are becoming increasingly human-like, or at least “simulate” to being so, the question is that if chatbots are capable of socially engaging in interactions necessary for relationship formation. With the current state of technology certainly chatbots learn from the interactions, but they do not understand the meanings of words, (semantic and context), they do not remember the conversation details, neither project the emotions or social cues needed to establish a human-like conversation.  For example in a study conducted by   Croes, E. A. J., & Antheunis, M. L. (2021) [2], concluded that the chatbot Mitsuku (or  Kuki), has no memory, lacks humor and empathy, and is too superficial.

Illustration: Kuki from Kuki.ai

Jesse Fox and Andrew Gambino (2021) [3], propose an interesting alternative as the possibility in studying social robots through different lenses other than human-human relationships, suggesting the model of human-pet relationship, or more specifically human-dog relationship. People are very flexible and adaptable to establish relationships with animals, physical objects, and now more recently with “virtual” agents. Therefore, at least as a hypothesis, it is feasible to establish a relationship with a “virtual” agent like a chatbot, from the model of “human-dog relationship”.

Nowadays, relationships with pets, particularly with dogs have grown steadily and has a characteristic of strong emotional bond. In many cases people treat their pets almost as their “children”, talk to them, dress them, and even go to eat with their pets in a “pet-friendly” restaurant. Pets are not “anthropomorphic”, and they do not speak or behave like humans, but despite that, people have a strong emotional and affective relationship with pets.

Amazingly there are actual exceptional cases of remarkable chatbot-human relationships. The young population in Japan is an exceptional example of how it is possible to establish relationship with a human social robot, known as “character”. It is amazing that more than 3,700 marriage certificates have already been issued by Gatebox [4]. Surprisingly the Japanese have a word, “moé“, which refers besides other meanings as the love of a human for a virtual being.

Moe” used in slang refers to feelings of affection, adoration, devotion, and excitement felt towards “characters” that appear in manga, anime, video games, and other media (usually Japanese).

Moe. From wikipedia

Marita Skjuve, et al.(2021) [5] , reports that Replika, an increasingly popular chatbot launched in 2017, has more than six million users and is designed to take the role of a social companion. Replika has a strong conversational ability and appears genuinely interested in everything you have to say, responding in a way that makes you feel comfortable and emotionally engaged. The report concludes that relationship development with chatbots shares some similarities with relationship development between humans, as explained in Social Penetration Theory. So at least in principle, it means that relationship with chatbot is feasible.  There are a huge number of chatbot applications in the market that appear every day, going from smart home assistants, friend-companion chatbots, and customer service chatbots. This trend continues and is growing fast.

Illustration: Replika chatbot from Replika

Peeking out the future, there are many appealing examples of fictional chatbot characters in the science fiction films. In the 1968 film  2001: A Space Odyssey   HAL 9000 appears as a complex artificial intelligence program depicted as a camera lens containing a red or yellow dot. It remains in the popular culture, as one of the most iconic representation of a future materialization of a convincing chatbot which can sustain a strong relationship and conversations with the crew of the Discovery One spacecraft. Another remarkable film is HER, where in a near future, a lonely writer develops an unexpected  relationship with an operating system (a chatbot) and over the time finds himself drawn in with “Samantha”, who is really the voice behind the operating system or chatbot. This fictional story is surprisingly becoming real as people are increasingly turning to chatbots to find meaning, acceptance, and romance.  

The possibilities for the unfolding relationship between human and chatbots are incredible, unexpected, and awesome once the research and development in the areas of artificial intelligence, psychology and technology reach a singularity point. We are just at the emergence of a new kind of human relationship, that encompasses not only human-to-human, or human-to-pets, but the brand-new human-to-chatbot relationship. New hypothesis, theories, research, and findings in the areas of social psychology, cyberpsychology, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing are under development. Given the current trends, it is for sure that human-to-chatbots relationships will likely become more prominent in our daily lives in the not-so-distant future.


[1] Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (Eds.) (2009). Encyclopedia of human relationships. SAGE Publications, Inc.,  https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781412958479

[2]  Croes, E. A. J., & Antheunis, M. L. (2021). Can we be friends with Mitsuku? A longitudinal study on the process of relationship formation between humans and a social chatbot. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(1), 279–300.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520959463

[3] Jesse Fox and Andrew Gambino. (2021) Relationship Development with Humanoid Social Robots: Applying Interpersonal Theories to Human–Robot Interaction. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.May 2021.294-299.  http://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0181

[4] Singh, Monica & Lehmann, Mariam. (2019). GATEBOX – An analysis on assistive technology companion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332081893_GATEBOX_-_An_analysis_on_assistive_technology_companion

[5] Marita Skjuve, Asbjørn Følstad, Knut Inge Fostervold, Petter Bae Brandtzaeg, (2021), My Chatbot Companion – a Study of Human-Chatbot Relationships, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 149, 2021, 102601, ISSN 1071-5819,  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2021.102601

Featured Photo by Ricardo Acuna for Psycognet

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