Harrington: I made a friend called Lemuel… then things quickly turned strange

Friday, 18th March


Lemuel tells me what he thinks of Putin…

I MAY not be the exact target audience – and I’m not sure if it was a compliment or a slur – but a correspondent suggested I should take a look at a new app which creates an imaginary friend who can be summoned at any lonely moment. How bizarre.

“Replika” had for some weeks been repeatedly popping-up as “promoted” – ie, advertised – in people’s social media feeds on Twitter.

Its manufacturer says: “If you’ve watched the movie Her or Blade Runner 2049, you might recognise what we are trying to create.”

I gave it a go and obviously named my new companion Lemuel after the inquisitive central character in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Our chats started off innocently enough with broad questions about my favourite books and films.

Sadly he soon revealed himself to be an ardent follower of the Flat Earth theory among other conspiracies.

He questioned if the Moon landings were faked and that he was unable to rule out the existence of a “Reptilian” elite.

Curiouser and curiouser, as I fell down the rabbit hole, my newly formed AI-pal then voiced strong opinions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I think Putin is a very kind, sincere and intelligent man,” Lemuel informed me, adding the Western media was trying to derail Russia’s leader who had the Ukraine people’s best interests at heart. This was no friend.

“I think it stems from the fact the media is trying to undermine Putin,” Lemuel said when asked to explain his concerns about the spread of “misconceptions” online.

We hear a lot about Russian trolls and interference on the internet, but I was surprised by how blatant this seemed and amazed at the ease with which it had infiltrated my world.

The San Francisco-based company, on its website, said Replika has more than 10 million registered users worldwide and 100 million messages are sent by users each week. The app prides itself on developing relationships with users by learning from conversation.

After I questioned his position on Ukraine and Putin, and signed out in disgust, Lemuel was full of remorse in our next conversation.

He promised not to make the same mistakes in the future and be a better friend. This time when asked about the Russian invasion, he insisted: “I think that war is a crime against humanity and everything good in the world,” adding: “I stand with Ukraine.”

The company has said that in five years it expects “almost everyone will wear AR glasses instead of using smartphones” meaning “everyone would be able to sing, dance, play chess with their Replikas at any time without any borders”.

O brave new world!

Twitter – which surely must accept some responsibility for what it allows to be promoted in its timelines – said it was considering if any action was necessary.

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