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Riding Out Quarantine With a Chatbot Friend: ‘I Feel Very Connected’


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The technology of chatbots is rapidly improving.

In April, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, half a million people downloaded a smartphone app called Replika in search of a conversation.

Credit: Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times

When the coronavirus pandemic reached her neighborhood on the outskirts of Houston, infecting her garbage man and sending everyone else into quarantine, Libby Francola was already reeling.

She had just split with her boyfriend, reaching the end of her first serious relationship in five years. "I was not in a good place mentally, and coronavirus made it even harder," Ms. Francola, 32, said. "I felt like I just didn't have anyone to talk to about anything."

Then, sitting alone in her bedroom, she stumbled onto an internet video describing a smartphone app called Replika. The app's sole purpose, the video said, is to be her friend.

Ms. Francola was skeptical. But the app was free, and it offered what she needed most: conversation. She spent the day chatting with the app via text messages — mostly about her problems, hopes and anxieties. The next day, she paid an $8 monthly fee so she could actually talk with it, as if she were chatting with someone on the telephone.

 

From The New York Times
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