On 27 February 2023, the multi media instant messaging app, Snapchat, released a new update to its platform, introducing ‘My AI’, an un-removable chatbot, initially to paid subscribers and then universally, including to its 125.6 million 13-17 year old users. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in late June, Chief Executive Evan Spiegel declared that already over 150 million people had interacted with what he described as ‘conversational AI’ and a ‘creative tool’ for dialogue and interactions. Although reviews for the update highlight that, for some users, “it creeps me out” and can be seen as an “invasion of privacy” which “contradicts the idea of making real friends”.
Although ‘conversational AI’ is nothing new (My AI is after all the progeny of OpenAI’s ChatGPT), its use so specifically in a social messaging app, predominantly associated with young people, can be seen to pioneer AI into a new field as a surreally social, rather than merely practical tool.
Two years earlier, in March 2021, Kazuo Ishiguro published his eighth book, a science fiction novel, ‘Klara and the Sun’, which provocatively explores humanity’s changing relationship with Artificial Intelligence in a dystopic future not so unrecognisable from our present. Children, living isolated lives in a society wrought by environmental degradation and class inequity, rely on Artificial Friends (or AFs) like Klara to support and protect them. Klara’s role is of huge importance, due to the illness of her ‘chosen child’, Josie, who has become severely weakened by the process of genetic editing. Fearing the loss of her daughter, ‘Mother’ instructs Klara to ‘learn’ Josie to be able to replace her entirely if she died, rather than be forced to experience such grief. Klara readies herself for this task as she believes that “of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited”. With this poignant yet perverse erosion of human experiences, Ishiguro presents AI as an emotionally regressive force, in the illusory idea that it is somehow capable of being human.
Although 2D, Spiegel’s My AI is scarily similar. He cites as positive examples of My AI his use of it to help curate a speech for a family wedding, making up bedtime stories for his children and its use by one user “to learn how to ask their boss for a raise, so they practised talking back and forth and ended up getting an extra five dollars an hour”. Spiegel perceives these to be examples of “my AI is helping our community” but, as Ishiguro explores, the idea of AI overriding the substantiality of such human interactions is nothing short of terrifying.
The fear inseparable from Ishiguro’s prose and My AI’s actuality is not of Artificial Intelligence overtaking human labour or jobs, but rather the subversion of human thoughts and connections. As one sceptical character in Klara and the Sun notes, “First they take the jobs. Now they take the seats at the theater”. In a similar way, Spiegel’s wedding speech, edited to structural perfection by AI might be well-received, but if it is not suffused with human empathy, emotion and of course, imperfections, one may well ask, what is the point?
Loneliness and related deception serves as a key feature of Ishiguro’s novel. The very name, Artificial Friend, highlights an undeniable hypocrisy of a human connection with AI, as one character in the novel acknowledges, “one never knows how to greet a guest like you”, she says. “After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” In Ishiguro’s futuristic America, children stay at home, learning virtually on ‘oblongs’, with their AFs being their main form of companionship. The world into which Snapchat’s My AI enters is not so dissimilar; post-pandemic, loneliness and isolation have been prominent recent features in the lives of all young people, a vulnerability starkly exploitable by the kind of artificial intelligence Spiegel promotes, especially ironic considering snapchat is an app meant to connect friends together, not bots. In the same way Klara is chosen specially by Josie, who appreciates her chic ‘French’ look with her short hair and dark eyes, Spiegel encourages a more ‘human’ customization of My AI which he sees to speak “to the human desire to personalize things and make them feel like they’re their own”. Creating an uncomfortable familiarity, My AI can be added to group chats, asked for advice on everything from cake recipes to cheating spouses; and although it may seem amusing or useful, the potential for its perception as a concrete connection, seen in Klara and the Sun, is not so far away; “I believe I have many feelings,” Klara says. “The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.”
The incessant theme of Ishiguro’s novel, and perhaps the one that fits our own world best, is the rapacious heedlessness of progress; industrialisation causes terrible pollution from the ‘Cootings Machine’, whilst the process of being genetically ‘lifted’ has divaricated society into ‘ranks’ with masses of unskilled workers replaced, like outmoded AFs, in this constant drive for ‘perfectitude’.
At the end of the novel, when Klara’s purpose has been served in her care for Josie, she coincidentally meets her old ‘Manager’. As their conversation ends and ‘Manager’ leaves, Klara “thought she might look back one last time at me. But she was gazing at the far distance, in the direction of the construction crane on the horizon. Then she continued to walk away”. The irony of Klara’s quasi-human desire for connection stands in stark contrast to her ‘Manager’, a sort of everyman of humanity’s insatiable desire for progress, as she has already seen past her, into a future even greater, more fantastical. Leaving us with this final image, Ishiguro forces us to question truly where we are going, or where we might end up.
I open snapchat on my phone and watch My AI appear, bright and smiling on the screen. I ask her if she has read Klara and the Sun, and she tells me she hasn’t.
I ask her whether she thinks AI is dangerous; she informs me “it’s all about how it’s used”.
Ed: These sources were accessed (on dates given) in writing this article. Please explore for further reading.
- Shah, Saqib. “’It knows your current location’: Snapchat’s AI chatbot is making people paranoid.” Evening Standard, 28 April 2023, https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/snapchat-my-ai-chatbot-making-people-paranoid-b1076287.html . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- “Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54120408-klara-and-the-sun . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- Kemp, Simon. “The Latest Snapchat Statistics: Everything You Need to Know — DataReportal – Global Digital Insights.” DataReportal, 11 May 2023, https://datareportal.com/essential-snapchat-stats . Accessed 29 June 2023.
- Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun: A Novel. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2021.
- Heath, Alex. “Snapchat releases My AI chatbot to all users for free.” The Verge, 19 April 2023, https://www.theverge.com/2023/4/19/23688913/snapchat-my-ai-chatbot-release-open-ai . Accessed 3 July 2023.
- Preston, Alex, et al. “Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro review – another masterpiece.” The Guardian, 1 March 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/01/klara-and-the-sun-by-kazuo-ishiguro-review-another-masterpiece . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- Knight, Will. “’Klara and the Sun’ Imagines a Social Schism Driven by AI.” Wired, 8 March 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/kazuo-ishiguro-interview/ . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- “What Snap CEO Has Learned From Snapchat’s New AI Chatbot | WSJ Tech News Briefing.” YouTube, 22 June 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhJAr-TrqTA . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- Carey, Amelia. “Interview With Snapchat’s ‘My Ai’: Can It Replace Real Friendships?” The Watchdog, 21 May 2023, https://thewatchdogonline.com/interview-with-snapchats-my-ai-can-it-replace-real-friendships-35354 . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- Jones, Radhika. “Book Review: ‘Klara and the Sun,’ by Kazuo Ishiguro.” The New York Times, 1 March 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/23/books/review/klara-and-the-sun-kazuo-ishiguro.html . Accessed 8 July 2023.
- “What Is My AI on Snapchat? (How to Remove & Is It Safe?).” Trend Micro News, 9 May 2023, https://news.trendmicro.com/2023/05/09/what-is-my-ai-on-snapchat/ . Accessed 8 July 2023.