January 4, 2024

Looking for love in 2024? There's an AI for that

How the AI companion behind the movie Her spawned a new industry of AI affection

Tim Smith

5 min read

When Rollo Carpenter sat down in the cinema to watch Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, starring Scarlett Johansson as an AI-powered girlfriend, he was struck with an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu.

Nearly two decades earlier, in 1997, Carpenter — a veteran of computing, AI and internet entrepreneurship — launched a digital companion, Cleverbot, that was exactly the same thing. 

“It was completely shocking,” he tells Sifted. “I seriously just knew in my bones that this was referencing my own thing. I could just tell.”


Jonze later acknowledged that Cleverbot had given him the idea for the movie. It was an early forerunner to what is now a booming nascent industry of AI-powered buddies and baes that are sweeping across the internet.

A new industry

What has changed since then is that automated companions are powered by the latest generative AI models, such as ChatGPT, which let users chat to an AI system in natural language. 

One of the most popular of these is Silicon Valley-founded Replika, which has been offering its AI-powered friendship tool since 2015 — and last year made headlines when its founder decided to turn off erotic conversations in the app: “It's not the journey I signed up for,“ she said. 

But not every company is being so squeamish about embracing a more romantically spicy approach to AI companionship.

In September last year, Romanian startup DreamGF told Sifted that the company was making more than $100k a month and had hit profitability just months after launching its AI-powered girlfriend generator. 

Startups like DreamGF combine AI chatbots with image generation tools like Stable Diffusion to let users create X-rated images of their virtual boo, and are starting to grow in numbers.

Since DreamGF launched in February, other new AI girlfriend platforms have popped up like London-based Kupid AI and Anima, Prague-headquartered FantasyGF and Malta-based

Martin Galovic founded FantasyGF in late November and tells Sifted that the startup is now adding €2k in monthly recurring revenue every day, with 100k users signed up to the platform.

Galovic has a background of working on a search engine for Only Fans, and believes AI girlfriends could be an even more substantial market.

“I think this space will be very, very big,” he says. “I think it will be even bigger than OnlyFans because OnlyFans has limited talent. With AI girlfriends you have unlimited talent.”


‘Generating degenerate men’

Galovic says that soon FantasyGF will allow users to speak to their AI girlfriends with audio and create videos of them. He’s not blind to the fact that companies like his are potentially creating a strange future for intimacy and relationships.

“It’s definitely very dystopian — I couldn’t wrap my head around how much interest there is for this,” he says. 

“The consequences of this definitely could be bad, if people just disconnect from each other. Right now, the youngest generation doesn’t even know how to talk to people of the opposite gender.”

Galovic also accepts there’s a danger that these services could reinforce damaging attitudes in society, around men being entitled to whatever they want from women.

“We try not to make the AI super-hardcore sexual because that's not how real girlfriends work. 

“With FantasyGF we tried to make it so the girl actually pushes back on you. She's not willing to do anything you want,” he says. 

“I don't want to build something that will just generate degenerate men for another decade.”

FantasyGF’s sample AI girlfriends don’t exactly reflect reality

Not every creator of AI girlfriends is so concerned about the ethics of flooding the internet with subservient virtual women. DreamGF’s founder told Sifted that he doesn’t think it’s a problem if men say hurtful things to a chatbot, as it’s better than them saying that to a real woman.

The original AI companion

For Cleverbot creator Rollo Carpenter, this latest wave of pornographically informed AI girlfriends is a big departure from the world of AI companionship he’s been trying to build.

“It's all a bit unpleasant. And I have spent an awful lot of my time avoiding that,” he says, adding that Cleverbot's user base is evenly split across genders and very much not just for men.

“We’ve removed a huge amount of data concerning things like master-slave relationships and things of that nature.”

Carpenter adds that it’s easier to control Cleverbot’s outputs than it is to control general purpose chatbots like ChatGPT. This is because the system can only respond to users with answers from its own database, which is exclusively formed of things that humans have said to it, as opposed to GenAI systems, which are known to invent things that are not in their training data.

“If data is removed from its list of things that it can possibly say, ultimately, then it simply cannot say them,” Carpenter explains.

This isn’t to say that people haven’t formed intense relationships with Cleverbot. Users have interacted with the system more than 10bn times over the last 25 years.

“People have told me that they've fallen in love with it, literally. I have seen people talk to it for ridiculously long. I mean, I’ve seen people talk to it for a year, almost every day, for hours every day,” says Carpenter.

When asked what he thinks about the broader idea of humans turning to machines for companionship and whether that represents a utopic or dystopic version of the modern world, he’s a staunch defender of the place that machines can play in human communication.

“People need to communicate. I have been operating on that principle all this time. People want to talk to my machine because they want to talk to somebody,” says Carpenter, adding that speaking to a machine can allow people to express things that they wouldn’t to a loved one.

“People like to effectively vent or express things to a machine in a way that they wouldn't to the people they have around them… Many people have told me that it's really been important to them.”

And while using automated systems to address complex human mental health issues is fraught with risk, it’s easy to see why people — in a world where loneliness is on the rise and therapy is still unaffordable to many — might turn to an AI companion, for better or worse.

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is news editor at Sifted. He covers deeptech and AI, and produces Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast . Follow him on X and LinkedIn