Can we be friends with a chatbot?

With the arrival of (online) social media many of our offline friendships shifted to online platforms. Many people even have online friends whom they’ve never met in ‘real life’. From research we now know that it’s possible to successfully form online friendships; but these are always friendships between humans. What about friendships with non-humans, for example chatbots? Are we able to become friends with a chatbot?

When communicating online with another human being, we often have to overcome some of the constraints imposed by the medium. For example, when communicating via WhatsApp, we rely on textual cues, or voice notes, to send a message; combined with emoticons, photos or videos. WhatsApp is primarily a textual medium. This means you can think about what you’re going to say, edit your message and even delete it (before anyone has seen it). Research shows that we can easily adapt to a medium like WhatsApp when forming friendships. We learn the rules of the medium and adapt our communication behavior accordingly1. Instead of winks, nods or sarcasm, we transform these nonverbal cues to emoticons or voice notes. And we do this quite well.

A Friendship with a Robot

Friendship formation is no longer limited to offline life. Most of us are very capable of forming friendships online – and some of us even prefer to meet people online. Communication science research focuses mainly on friendships between humans (for obvious reasons). With the rise of robots, chatbots and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, one may wonder whether it is possible for humans to form a true friendship with a bot. If anyone has seen the movie ‘Her’, where a man falls in love with his computer, you might have thought to yourself whether it’s a real possibility.

Our Study with Chatbot Mitsuku

We at Tilburg University were wondering the same thing, which is why we decided to put the theory to the test. We conducted a study where people were asked to have seven short conversations with chatbot Mitsuku2, over a period of three weeks. Mitsuku was chosen because she is a four-time winner of the Loebner Prize, an annual award for the most human-like system. After each conversation we asked our participants to fill out a short questionnaire. In this way, we wanted to determine whether the processes associated with friendship formation would increase over time – as is usually the case between humans.

Unfortunately we found the opposite. First, people scored very low on our friendship formation scale, which leads us to conclude that, at this point in time, we cannot be friends with a chatbot. Second, the social processes we measured such as the intimacy and quality of the interaction, perceived likeability, empathy and communication competence of the chatbot all decreased over time; which explains why the score in friendship formation was so low. Essentially, people liked Mitsuku after the first conversation, but this decreased after each subsequent interaction.

Friendship with a Chatbot: Not (yet) Possible

So we can’t (yet) be friends with a chatbot – but why? We believe that, no matter how real and humane Mitsuku is, she’s a chatbot who lacks important human qualities that impair the formation of a friendship. For example, she scored low on empathy – an important (human) quality in interpersonal interactions. In addition, participants indicated that they thought she was repetitive and that she was unable to reference an earlier conversation. This made each interaction feel like a new one. Also, even though she seemed to know a lot, the information she gave was often impersonal – which, of course, it was. Chatbots and humans have no shared experiences or common history, seeing as a chatbot is a programmed form of AI.

Although a friendship between humans and robots, as beautifully portrayed in the movie ‘Her’, does not yet seem possible, that doesn’t mean that chatbots cannot play an important role in people’s lives. In fact, Mitsuku’s creator Steve Worswick recently shared the messages of gratitude he receives from people who have interacted with Mitsuku and felt that she helped them through a number of issues, including depression and social anxiety. So social chatbots like Mitsuku may not, strictly speaking, be our friends but they may very well be a friendly companion in times of need.

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