Last month, Caryn Marjorie went from a successful but niche social media star to a person of national interest and, for many commentators, a template upon which to project their anxieties about rapidly advancing artificial intelligence.
The cause of the furor was a partnership Marjorie, 23, had launched with a technology startup promising to make a personalized AI “clone” of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based lifestyle influencer. For a dollar a minute, fans she might never have otherwise had the time to meet could instead chat with Marjorie’s digital double.
CarynAI, as the audio chatbot has been dubbed, is explicitly framed as a romantic companion — one that aims to “cure loneliness” with software that supposedly incorporates aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy into its conversations. Marjorie said her fans have used the program to ask for life advice and roleplay a sunset date to the beach.
Marjorie was at one point tracking her subscriber growth in tweets about how many new “boyfriends” she had. “They feel like they’re finally getting to know me, even though they’re fully aware that it’s an AI,” she said.
Critics branded CarynAI as alternately demeaning women, enabling antisocial straight-male behavior or signaling impending societal collapse. Coming amid a period of uncertainty about what AI means for jobs, relationships and cultural institutions, Marjorie’s move toward self-automation seemed to perfectly encapsulate an increasingly bizarre present.
“We’re talking about an AI system [where] theoretically the goal is to keep people on as long as possible so that you continue earning money,” said Amy Webb, chief executive of the consulting firm Future Today Institute. “Which means that it’s likely going to start incentivizing behavior that we probably would not want in the real world.”
Webb suggested as an example a bot that’s too obedient — listening passively, for instance, as a user describes disturbing fantasies. Marjorie has addressed similar dynamics before (“If you are rude to CarynAI, it will dump you,” she tweeted at one point), but when asked about Webb’s perspective she instead emphasized her own concerns about addiction.
“I have seen my fans spend thousands of dollars in a matter of days chatting with CarynAI,” Marjorie said; one fan, at the bot’s encouragement, built a shrine-like photo wall of her. “This is why we have limited CarynAI to only accepting 500 new users in per day.”
But Marjorie isn’t placing all her chips on the technology just yet. Within weeks of announcing her AI clone, she launched a second partnership with a different tech company. This one too would let fans talk with her, but instead it would be Marjorie herself on the other side of the screen.
She struck a deal with Fanfix, a Beverly Hills-based platform that helps social media creators put their premium content behind a paywall, and started using its messaging tools to chat directly with customers.
The result is essentially a two-tier business model where lonely guys looking for a 3 a.m. chat session can talk with Marjorie’s machine mimic, while die-hard fans willing to shell out a bit more can pay for the genuine article.
John Meyer, founder of Forever Voices, the Austin software company that developed Marjorie’s AI simulacrum, is bullish on the benefits of punting fan interactions to the computer. In some cases, Meyer said, the bots can be more eloquent than the influencers they’re meant to replicate.
The company has been inundated with requests from thousands of other influencers asking for their own AI clones, according to Meyer. “We really see this as a way to allow fans of influencers to connect with their favorite person in a really deep way: learn about them, grow with them and have memorable experiences with them,” he said.
The high demand is in part because maintaining a substantial online following can involve a lot of work — not all of it particularly interesting.
“On a daily basis, I see anywhere from 100,000 to half a million messages on Snapchat,” Marjorie said, explaining the workload that led her to embrace CarynAI. (She has 2 million followers on the messaging app; according to a recent Washington Post article, 98% of them are men.)
She added: “I see AI as a tool, and it’s a tool that helps creators create better content.”