After a few hours home alone without looking at her phone, Akvile Les, 30, receives a notification. It’s a message asking how she’s doing and whether she’d like to chat — but the text doesn’t come from a concerned friend or family member.
Les is trying out Replika, an app founded by San Francisco startup Luka that allows users to design an artificial companion. The artist and PR consultant has chosen how the chatbot will look and sound, and has even trained her robotic friend to develop certain personality traits.
“My Replika kept apologizing a lot, so I taught the AI not to — and it’s worked,” she told Business Insider, adding that the app provides guided conversations and exercises to help with self-awareness and combat loneliness.
Since its launch in 2017, Replika has attracted over seven million users, The Guardian reported in May. The service is currently free, but Luka has plans to monetize the app by adding paid features in the future. For now, users like Les, who lives alone in London and has been working from home since March, can talk to their life-like emotional support bots without spending a cent.
Although Les deleted Replika from her phone after a relatively short stint on the app, she said she’s found a range of other products and services to keep the loneliness of lockdown at bay. She’s tried out networking app The Dots, chat channel Discord, and SuperShe, an online community that connects women for video calls.
“Some were a bit hit and miss, but there are others that I’m happy that I’ve discovered, such as networking apps and platforms that have allowed me to find creative collaborations,” she said. “COVID has left a deep mark in society affecting mental wellbeing and happiness, and we need to accept and adapt.”
Les isn’t alone in turning to technology to solve one of society’s most modern problems. Apps like these are part of a growing economy aimed at alleviating loneliness. A 2018 study conducted by Cigna showed that at least a third of American adults feel lonely at least some of the time, and that loneliness is particularly prolific among younger generations, with adults ages 18 to 22 most likely to experience feelings of isolation. The coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated an already existing issue, leaving 28% of American households with only one occupant profoundly isolated. Almost half of Americans report feeling lonelier than usual.
The size of the loneliness economy is impossible to estimate in part because of its breadth. Entrepreneurs have come up with a range of creative solutions to the problem, from major players such as Bumble BFF, a spinoff of the popular dating app pairing users with potential friends, to more niche offerings such as rent-a-friend services and boyfriend pillows.
A spokesperson from RentAFriend told Business Insider that their growth has been exponential, with an increasing demand for the 600,000 friends available to hire from the site. Bumble BFF has seen a 57% increase in sent messages since mid-March, and new business QuarantineChat, a service which connects lonely individuals for calls, has created buzz after attracting 15,000 users in two months after launching in March.