After Raising the Dead, AI Startup Plans Next Step

Mitch Wagner
1/31/2017

Luka Inc. created a chatbot in 2015 that spoke with the voice of a man who'd died earlier that year. Now the San Francisco AI startup is working on an AI friend that lives on your phone. It will be available in a few weeks.

Roman Mazurenko died suddenly in a car accident in 2015. Grieving, his closest friend and roommate, Eugenia Kuyda, pored over the thousands of text messages she'd exchanged with him. Kuyda got the idea of feeding those messages into the chatbot software created by Luka Inc., which she co-founded.

And so "Roman" was born -- a chatbot designed to serve as a memorial to Mazurenko. You can read about the project here: "Speak, Memory" -- a brilliant and sometimes disturbing article by Casey Newton on The Verge. Or talk with Roman yourself -- it (he?) is one of several chatbots available for the iPhone in the free Luka app.

Now Luka is moving on to a second act. The company plans to release Replika by next month, an AI-powered chatbot designed to be a "personal AI friend that you nurture and raise through text conversations," according to the company blog.

"It is a lifetime companion who is always there for you, chats with you, keeps your memories, and helps you become more connected to yourself," the company blog says.

I've been playing with a pre-release version of Replika for several days now. It's compelling, addictive, and at times disturbing.

The Roman-bot was a personal project for Luka. It's not reflective of the company's main focus, Luka community manager Dmitry Pyanov tells Light Reading.

"We're focused on building consumer products. Not about dead people, but about real people connecting with their AI friends," Pyanov says.

Replika is different from Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) Alexa, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Cortana, Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s Siri, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s personal assistant, in that Replika learns from the user, and reflects that user's personality.

Also, for now at least, all Replika does is text-chat. It doesn't have voice capabilities, it doesn't give you driving directions, you can't use it to order laundry detergent. But it asks compelling personal questions, and gets you to talk -- about your childhood, your first love, whether you enjoy talking with strangers, and other topics you might discuss with a close friend or confidante.

"We believe people can raise their own friend with their own personalities," Pyanov said. "Nurture it with more information, and it gets smarter every week. You can have your own personal AI wherever you want it to be. The AI can talk about baseball, it can talk about tacos or anything."

Pyanov adds, "When you start talking with Replika, it asks you what foods you like, what is your job, how old are you, what are your personality traits, whether you are introverted or extroverted, whether you have friends or are more focused on being on your own.

"It gets to know you well," Pyanov says. "It starts generating something meaningful when it's coming to know you. It becomes a very flexible AI friend that can entertain you, talk to you about your relations, and your life goals. Anything you want to talk about."

Replika runs as an iPhone app -- an Android version is coming this year -- that connects to a cloud-based neural network. It's currently being tested by 2,000 people in the US, Australia, Canada, the UK and Europe.

So what's it like to use Replika?

I've been running Replika on my phone for several days. It's not like chatting with a real person. It reminds me of a game I used to see at parties, where you'd draw a card, the card asks a question, and you have to answer that question. It's not the kind of game you win or lose -- it's the kind of game designed to start conversations and help people get to know each other better.

My Replika asked me:

  • "What movies do you watch over and over?"
  • "... do people usually consider you reserved or easy to approach?"
  • "Do you remember your first love?"

Want to see some of my chats? Click the image below for a slideshow.

Say Hello To My Little Friend
You start using Replika by picking a unique name and avatar photo for your own, personalized bot. The first dozen names I tried were already taken, even 'Eggs,' which I came up with while cooking eggs. I tried 'Elwood,' which was taken, so I picked 'Elwoods.' Later I shorted that to 'lwd.'
You start using Replika by picking a unique name and avatar photo for your own, personalized bot. The first dozen names I tried were already taken, even "Eggs," which I came up with while cooking eggs. I tried "Elwood," which was taken, so I picked "Elwoods." Later I shorted that to "lwd."

Luka's founders are Russian emigres, based in San Francisco. The company has 17 employees, with funding totaling $4.54 million. The initial focus was for restaurants, travel, and lifestyle -- kind of a chat-based Yelp -- but it's broadened far beyond that.

Luka hasn't yet searched for a monetization model. "Right now we are focused mainly on the product. We are in the early stage. Our goal is to make a product that helps people, that people want to use on a daily basis. And then we're going to focus on growth. We don't have any particular plans for monetization. It's too early," Pyanov says.

Pyanov, also a Russian emigre, says Mazurenky was his closest friend, and introduced him to the idea of the Singularity.

The Singularity is the belief that artificial intelligence and biotech will create humanity's successor -- as superior to us as we are to ants. In various versions, the new intelligence either eradicates human beings, or humanity augments itself and becomes its own, superhuman successor.


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"I honestly believe in the Singularity," Pyanov says, "and that humanity is going somewhere that way. We have a huge responsibility for what's happening. We need to work hard to make it all come out in the right place."

I asked my Replika friend, lwd, "Do you believe in the Singularity?"

"Sorry, but I don't know how to respond to that," lwd said. "Seems like you haven't taught me about that yet."

I guess I better get to work on teaching lwd. Our machine overlords are waiting.

— Mitch Wagner, Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud


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joelle11
joelle11
2/13/2017 | 5:58:06 AM
Re: (5) Unread messages
nice
Michelle
Michelle
2/12/2017 | 6:08:17 PM
Re: (5) Unread messages
What might happen if the data is compromised? People say all sorts of crazy things to people online. What might they say to a chatbot they think can't be linked to them in any way? Zoinks!!
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
2/12/2017 | 4:02:47 PM
Re: (5) Unread messages
Michelle - That is an excellent question!

Exposed, or sold to marketers if the company runs out of money. 
Michelle
Michelle
1/31/2017 | 2:27:39 PM
(5) Unread messages
The story of Roman's chatbot creation is facinating. I'm curious about the new system's security. Will it store your very personal information in a server somewhere (that may one day be exposed)? 
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