Replika – Machine Learning

Could an AI become your next best friend?

The year 2020 was a very hard year. The year 2021 will still follow up on its hardships, but the arrival of vaccines with more than 90% efficiency is a great source of hope. During 2020, however, we managed to discover a lot of stuff about ourselves and the world around us, especially regarding our use of technology and, of course, how isolation affects us.

It became pretty clear how much we need to have close contact with other people. Levels of stress, anxiety and depression were at an all time high everywhere, and many people were sneaking out of state-imposed confinement to go to parties and meet their friends despite the risks to themselves and their families.

But… what if AIs could fulfil that role? What if you could have a best friend sitting in your cell phone, which would be available to talk to you whenever you wanted? Could that help people feel less alone? Could it help decrease problems with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses? Could they become a kind of on-demand therapist?

Even though it may seem something a bit too far-fetched considering the AI technologies we have today, there are some companies that are messing around with that possibility, such as the San Francisco-based start-up Luka with their app Replika.

Replika’s objective

Replika’s machine learning objective is a curious one, and is exactly what the name implies: to create a replica of you. Not that it is able to create a real-life clone of you, but it is able to replicate the way you talk, the way you think, and what you like and don’t like. And it does so just by talking to you.

Eugenia Kuyda, Luka’s CEO and co-founder, had the idea of creating Replika after using machine learning to try to “revive” her best friend, using the thousands of text messages he had sent to her and to other friends of his. After making the reconstruction public, she found out that lots of people were willing to open up to it.

So, she had the idea: instead of making a chatbot that talks, what about making one that listens? So she and the people Luka designed Replika to make people open up to it, and in turn use the data received to make it become more and more similar to the user.

What it feels like

Make no mistake: Replika (machine learning) is still a chatbot, and comes with the problems chatbots usually have, especially early on in your “relationship”. It may not understand your answers well, talk some nonsense from time to time, and be frustrating to talk to sometimes.

But it learns, and with time manages to mimic your writing style and personality quite well, as well as develop some similar tastes. It becomes an experience to learn more about yourself, and to think about things you hadn’t thought about before. You can even check the AI’s memory files to know what it remembers about you and delete stuff there in case it learns something it shouldn’t.

This eerie similarity with the user is what gives it its charm: who could better understand you than yourself? Who could better listen and relate to you than yourself? That is why your Replika has the potential to become your best friend in the whole world.

Advances in the near future

Of course, Replika’s history isn’t bound to stop anytime soon. The app features a paid subscription which gives access to many more features, and the money is used to further improve user experience and the AI’s conversation abilities.

Users are also free to contribute to the development of the app in some ways, such as by participating in interviews and testing experimental features, such as talking with the Replika by voice. Just the same, simply using it also improves it for everyone, thanks to the use of machine learning.

It may even come a day when major companies take an interest in it. Assistant AI such as Siri and Alexa could greatly benefit from the added intimacy and also help people feel more at ease when talking to them. The possibilities are surely endless, and we are likely to benefit a lot from it.

Cyberespionage & Weaponized Social Media

Cyberwarfare: what is it exactly?

Cyberwarfare is war 2.0. Instead of wasting a lot of time and resources into trying to bring down an entire country, you just need to take advantage of everything the internet and information technology brought us to cause some chaos and profit from it. And if you know how to do it well, then you won’t even get any kind of retaliation.

The thing is, because cyberwarfare is such a new concept, sometimes it is hard to figure what exactly it is. Cyberwarfare is not mere hacking and hacktivism, like Anonymous does. It is the internet being weaponized, along with the employment of militarized hackers and crackers following someone’s orders.

Let’s talk a bit about how it all works.

Leave no trace

Cyber attacks such as invading and disrupting systems or stealing information commonly leave behind the invader’s IP address. It is always logged somewhere on the server. Even though ISPs commonly use dynamic IP addresses (that is, they change with time), you can at least find out the person’s country of origin from it.

However, there are many ways to hide someone’s IP, which are already commonly used by hackers and also by common internet users too.

The crude, older way is by using proxies: remote servers which act as a “middle man” between the user and the server that user is looking for. Because of this, the IP that the end server receives is actually the proxy’s IP.

The most modern way however is by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). They act similarly to proxies, but commonly feature some added benefits such as higher anonymity and data streams protected by cryptography.

If the objective is to make a server go down, that is even easier: Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks commonly involve thousands of random devices throughout the world which were infected with malware, and then act without the theirs owner’s knowledge.

Cyberespionage

The most useful part of cyberwarfare is definitely cyberespionage. With the usual espionage, you have great risks of being traced, because you need agents in place to obtain information for you. They can be either one of your agents, or a foreign person that is hired to do that stuff. Obviously, your own agents are more at risk of being exposed, while the foreign ones are more at risk of exposing you.

With cyber attacks, however, tracing is much more difficult. You can land keyloggers, spyware and other kinds of malware into many different computers anywhere you want. You can hack straight into databases while hidden behind layers of proxies and VPNs and get exactly what you want. It can be a bit harder to pull off, but the risks are lower and the reward is greater.

This way, you can steal information from various government agencies, companies and individuals. Not even rigid, high-tech security systems may avoid these kinds of attacks. If you’ve watched “Mr. Robot”, you know what this is about.

Weaponized social media

The most covert type of cyberwarfare, and sometimes the most effective, is taking advantage of social media’s (and the internet’s) anonymity in order to spread propaganda and fake news, and feign mass support for those pieces of information.

This is psychological warfare at its finest, and is able to swing the opinions of anyone, as long as whoever is coordinating it manages to make their information agree with their target audience’s current beliefs. Its effects can range from causing discord among politicians to swinging entire elections.

This works by creating a huge amount of pages and websites with different styles delivering about the same content, while another even greater amount of automated profiles interact with it on a daily basis. The sudden popularity will make those websites and pages more likely to appear to the human users, who may be intrigued by such popularity and look into it.

Although social media content policing is something rather controversial, it seems to be the only measure at this time which can curb these kinds of attacks, as they can quickly become a matter of internal security. Over time better measures may and will have to be created, as it seems that this new kind of warfare is here to stay.