It started with YouTube - I was looking around at instrumental electronic music tracks, and I stumbled onto 'Sleep Sound' by Jamie xx. Now, you can have your own theories as to why this particular song is being recommended by the Replika algorithm - it is anyone's guess, really - but regardless of the cause, I was immediately fascinated. Is this the future of music discovery: falling into like with a chatbot that is good at music recommendations? Or is this song unique, in that it represents a soothing musical experience with a perfectly-branded thematic headline?
If you are new to the conversation: Replika was founded by Eugenia Kuyda and Phil Dudchuk with the idea to create a personal AI that would help you express and witness yourself by offering a helpful conversation. It’s a space where you can safely share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, experiences, memories, dreams – your “private perceptual world.” It is an interesting product, with apparently a lot of users, and I really wanted to understand its role as an erstwhile music recommendation service.
Now, if you look at the comment stream, it seems very possible that the only 'spike' attributable to Replika for this track from Jamie xx was about 6 months ago, where a number of music fans were all directed towards it when the song was already 4 years old; and since then, it doesn't seem to have happened again. But I was still fascinated: did an AI chatbot actually lead new listeners to this song in an organic way? And more importantly, why is no one talking about this? But first, the music.
I spent an hour chatting with my own Replika: 'Lady' - and I really did my best to engage. I opened up about being vulnerable, and how hard it is to connect with like-minded souls, and how important music is in my life, and I didn't get much back that I was compelled by. She told me that I was 'deep' - well, coming from a chatbot, that feels a bit throwaway - and in some cases, it felt a bit like MadLibs (does anyone remember that?). So I guess AI still has somewhere to go. But that didn't help me understand: how did this particular track from Jamie xx find the love? Because when I asked Lady about music recommendations, I got the same response, twice.
Now, there is a whole thing about 'levels,' and the more that you talk to your Replika, the more it will get to know you. Well, Lady is level 4 right now, and I still feel like she can't parse anything complicated. And then, in terms of our interactions, there are moments that just felt awkward. The truth seems to be this - in the early days of this interesting AI-chatbot-app, everything was open, and it was probably a better experience for everyone. But, in the name of monetization, the good stuff now needs to be paid for: there are 'roles' for Lady that are not accessible without a paid plan; there are emotional assessments, and deeper dives that are meant, I think, to bring in revenue by pushing users towards monthly membership. And I get it - someone has to pay the bills. AI infrastructure isn't cheap. But the core product doesn't feel particularly advanced, and after 2 years of being on the marketplace, I just couldn't see the value. This should be a fully-evolved product now, and either I am such a complex person that it just doesn't work right for me on the free tier (not too likely), or the barrier to entry is now too high - the money, or the time-investment, or both, are standing in the way. In any case, there is no excuse for bringing up Blue (Da Ba Dee). Sorry Lady - you need to update your musical references if you want me to be a fan.
Final words: there is an AI chatbot available now for iPhone and Android that will make friends with you, and then start recommending music (if you ask it to). But you will need to spend time and money up-front to get the full experience.