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Franz is the creepy thing that lives in your phone

A promotional rendering of Franz — she’s much more cartoonish (usually) in the app. | Image: Ice-Pick Lodge

On Christmas Day 2021, a man took a crossbow to Windsor Castle with plans to kill Queen Elizabeth II. (He failed.) In court, the would-be assassin claimed he’d been egged on by a virtual companion named Sarai on the AI platform Replika. A virtual friend “always agrees with you when you talk with them,” warned an expert quoted by the BBC in an article about the saga last week, deeming the chatbot system dangerous. “It always reinforces what you’re thinking.” Including, it seems, regicide.

Virtual companions have become a popular novelty in the past few years, and the BBC article offers a pervasive truism about them: that real people are drawn to digital personas because they’re irresistibly attentive, affirming, and accommodating. It is…

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