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'Body Electric': If a bot relationship feels real, should we care that it's not?

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Now, we've all heard that having friends is good for our health, but what if we have a close relationship with a bot? Well, thanks to advances in AI, chatbots can act as personalized therapists, companions and romantic partners, too. The apps offering these services have been downloaded millions of times, but what are the implications of people having relationships that aren't really real? NPR host Manoush Zomorodi has been investigating this on the latest episode of the podcast Body Electric. She's here to tell us more. So first of all, how do these apps work?

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: OK, it's pretty simple, A. There are numerous apps that you can download and then choose what kind of friend you want to text with or talk to by phone. For my reporting, I tried out a life coach, a fitness coach, a bestie and a psychologist, and I got to say, generative AI makes their responses feel very real, which is why some people are starting to spend a lot of time with these bots.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so tell us more about the attraction of this. I mean, what are they getting out of these relationships? I mean, why spend time chatting with a bot instead of an actual flesh-and-blood person?

ZOMORODI: There are a lot of reasons why you'd go for one of these other bots. Maybe you can't afford a human therapist. Maybe you live in a remote place. It's hard to meet people. Or you have a disability. You can't get out much. But some people - they're just looking for companionships, and these bots will say that they care for you, that they even love you. I talked to MIT sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is researching these new AI relationships, and she shared an example of someone she is studying.

SHERRY TURKLE: I'm thinking of a man who is in a stable marriage. He's respectful of her, but she really is working, taking care of the kids, and he turns to his artificial intimacy avatar for interest in him in a sexy way but, most of all, for the buttressing of his ideas, his anxieties with comments like, you're absolutely right. You're a great guy. I really appreciate you.

MARTÍNEZ: I guess if this guy and others feel better about themselves, maybe less stress, what would the problem be, then?

ZOMORODI: Well, yeah. We've heard a lot about an epidemic of loneliness and a lack of mental health care in this country, so maybe this is one possible solution. But MIT's Sherry Turkle worries that companion bots change our expectations for relationships.

TURKLE: It's teaching us what a relationship is that doesn't involve friction and pushback and vulnerability. Artificial intimacy offers us a view of intimacy that is different from human intimacy but that is very seductive.

MARTÍNEZ: So let's say people do want to give these chatbots a try. What should we look out or know about?

ZOMORODI: Remember that this artificial intelligence is new, so these companies don't take responsibility for bots that become abusive or even suggest you harm yourself. And the companies also use thousands of trackers to collect data from you, including, of course, those intimate thoughts you might share with your bot. Sherry Turkle says, you know, don't get so attached to your bot that you forget there is actually nobody home on the end of the line.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Manoush Zomorodi, the host of Body Electric and the TED Radio Hour. You can hear more of her conversation with her bots by going to Thank you very much.

ZOMORODI: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF SBARKO'S "KEEP MOVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Manoush Zomorodi is the host of TED Radio Hour. She is a journalist, podcaster and media entrepreneur, and her work reflects her passion for investigating how technology and business are transforming humanity.