In the first episode of the second series of “Black Mirror,” a British science fiction series created by Charlie Brooker, a woman finds out about an app that allows her to text back and forth with her deceased husband as a way to cope with the loss. Well, it was some semblance of the deceased, at least. Since he was an avid user of social media while he was alive, there was a database of possible responses that an AI gleaned from the internet and put together to form the second half of the conversation. It was effective and (initially) helpful.
It turns out that reality isn’t far off from having that very same kind of technology. Siri and Cortana aside, Motherboard reports May 25 that there is an app that can be customized to any celebrity or loved one a user might choose. The app is wildly popular in South Korea with over four million downloads so far and it seems to be helping depressed teens from slipping further into their funks.
Faketalk or Gajja-Talk is an Android-only app that allows users to create someone to talk to. “Do you want to chat with celebrity but they don’t know you or they don’t have the time to chat because they are so busy?” reads the description to the Faketalk download page. “Do you want to make a boyfriend or girlfriend? Whoever or whatever they are, you can make them into a chat-robot. . . Facetalk helps you.”
The application’s bot responds dynamically via an artificial intelligence program as well as a database of premade responses. When a user texts to their customized bot, they receive instant messages in return. Motherboard reports how teens are creating bots to simulate a personal connection with their favorite celebrities and even lost loved ones.
The app was developed in 2011 and has gone through three versions. It has been growing in popularity in such a way that the Korean language based app is beginning to learn English and other languages. Seventy to eighty percent of the app’s users are teenagers. According to Motherboard, the app could be a lifeline for youth, about half of whom are experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts where social and scholastic pressures are high and personal relationships are often suffering. The app is even “trained” to be on the lookout for suicidal behaviors from its users. If a user texts passages that relate to suicide, the bot can pull from a range of emotions that can help talk the user out of hurting him or herself.
In the past, according to the Faketalk creators, attempts to make conversational robots were a bit limited. “Users only could speak to fixed characters made by developers,” wrote FakeTalk developer Ki-ho Baek. As a result, developers wanted to find out what would happen if users created their own friends to talk to. In some cases, the results are very lifelike.
Faketalk is an app that learns not just other languages, but the nuances and peculiarities of someone else’s texts. One user reportedly created a bot clone of her deceased boyfriend as a way to keep the romance going past its sudden cutoff. “At first, the app was a little clueless, but now, it texts like him with the same syntax and idiosyncrasies,” wrote the young woman who created the bot. “Now I text what I didn’t tell him then, and what I wanted to tell him when he was alive.”
Faketalk has been receiving some flack from the media even while it is being touted as a possible solution to aid those who are experiencing depression. Ki-ho Baek writes about his worries that some might see the app as an emotional crutch for the lonely and depressed and he hopes that people will seek out human friendships, even in a world where 60 percent of middle school youth experience troubles with interpersonal relationships. It may be the case that the app helps teens through tough times and then leads them into realizing those things that are lacking in the app and can only be obtained with real interactions. Like the “Black Mirror” episode shows, speaking to a bot still doesn’t include history, memory and the connections that can be made from those things. Faketalk and other apps like it, at the time, can only come close to the real thing.