A website allows fans around the world to have one-on-one conversations with their favorite celebrities, icons and personalities. The only catch? Conversations are done with a machine, not a person.
Character.ai, an artificial intelligence website created by two former Google engineers, Noam Shazeer and Daniel De Freitas, went public last September. Since then, it has grown in popularity, but experienced a boom this year, according to Google Trends. In recent days, the site has also caused a stir on Twitter, with a host of users admitting to sinking hours into character.ai, almost forgetting that the persona they’re texting with isn’t real thanks to the seamless AI.
The site, which is free, offers a huge variety of characters, real and fictional, for users to chat with — from former President Donald Trump to fictional character Joel Miller from the hit HBO series and video game “The Last of Us . » It offers tools like practicing how to interview or write a story. It also has an option called “help me make a decision”.
Among fan fiction enthusiasts, the tool was met with enthusiasm. When the site, which is in beta mode, went down briefly for maintenance this week, many way outissued on Twitter that they missed the platform. Some joked that it was on in the midst of important discussions.
This excitement is not surprising, according to some experts in “stan” culture, as the innovation allows fans a new way to engage with the fandom.
“I think fans in general are looking for more and more ways to connect with their favorite celebrities, especially online,” said Denisha Kuhlor, founder of Stan, a platform where fans can interact with each other. “People who used to be just spectators and play on the sidelines as more spectators are now encouraged [to participate] whether it’s, you know, just a duet of a TikTok video or even a commentary — I think [character.ai] it’s like the next iteration of people who also contribute to the creation of content.”
Its popularity also comes as AI chatbots grow in popularity, with many trying to replicate the success of AI software such as ChatGPT, an advanced prototype chatbot that went viral last year. In January, an app called Historical Figures – which uses GPT-3 technology in an attempt to simulate the perspective of notable people – also went viral.
Character.ai uses its own “deep learning models, including large language models,” from the ground up, according to its FAQ page. It’s unclear if the celebrities consent to the use of their images, but it appears that there are various user-created chatbots for many of the celebrities and characters on the site.
This type of platform allows people to have “more experience” in the realm of fan fiction, Kuhlor said. He described character.ai as making the barrier to entry “much lower” for those who want to start writing fan fiction.
The parasocial relationships that fans have with the stars are, to some extent, critical to the success of a platform like character.ai.
“Every technology that I can think of has been a vehicle for parasocial relationships because people were built to connect with others,” said Wendi Gardner, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “And so we do.”
At Character.ai, most of the bots are built by users from scratch. But Character.ai stresses that the interactions aren’t real. “The product is based on neural language models,” the site says in its FAQ. “A supercomputer reads massive amounts of text and learns to hallucinate what words might come next in any given situation.”
Every technology I can think of has been a vehicle for parasocial relationships because humans were built to connect with others
-Wendi Gardner, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University
This means that “characters make things up!” the website states. “So while they can be entertaining and useful in many ways, they can also recommend a song that doesn’t exist or provide links to bogus evidence to support their claims.”
Gardner said parasocial relationships are usually healthy — unless they start to affect real-world relationships. He encourages people with “high social appetites” to “have a good time” on platforms like character.ai.
However, he noted, this type of platform “could become a problem” if people spend more time on it than “we could be spending with the real people we’re connected to and care about.”
Beyond using the platform as a basis for real-life relationships, Kuhlor pointed out another concern: that the AI could be used by stans looking to hunt down a perceived enemy of their beloved star.
In a conflict where the internet feels compelled to take a stand, some passionate standards might use the machine learning behind a celebrity AI to make that AI say harmful things or treat other users badly as a way to prove that the person is “bad” or “wrong.”
“What makes fan and stan culture so great, in terms of how sophisticated they are and how powerful they can be, is also, to me, what makes it a little scary,” Kuhlor said.
He suggested that some celebrities may become wary of these platforms in the future. While AI “can probably do its best, it may not always reflect the real deal, especially when they’re nuanced,” she said, referring to famous people.
A representative for Character.ai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ultimately, innovation will not replace a real interaction between a fan and their favorite celebrity or public figure, no matter how realistic the interactions on character.ai may seem.
“Characters are good at pretending to be real – that means imitating the way people talk,” even Character.ai states on its website. “You’re still talking to the character.”