Can AI be a real counterpart?

Alexander Piotrowski
| 26. May 2024

In a nutshell

  • AI will be a real counterpart to humans.
  • It is not only the actual capabilities of AI systems that determine whether humans perceive them as counterparts, but rather the question of what is sufficient for the human brain to attribute a being to the AI.
  • How easy this is for the brain can be seen in how quickly we recognize a face in two dots and a line or in our emotional attachment to fabric filled with absorbent cotton as soon as we give it the shape of an animal.
  • Today, AI systems are already close to fulfilling the minimum requirements for a counterpart: be it anthropomorphic characteristics, shared memories or their constant availability and the associated benefit of being able to contact them.


Shopping street in Tokyo with a cute robot walking next to it.

Imagine chatting about your favorite series with a chatbot that knows exactly which characters you love and which storylines captivate you the most. This is already a reality thanks to artificial intelligence. But how close is this technical interaction to a real conversation with a friend?

We usually approach the question by considering what qualities an AI actually has and whether these can be regarded as genuine human abilities. In our opinion, however, this is the wrong question. The decisive factor is not how an AI actually works.

Instead, the interaction with AI is crucial.

What thoughts, emotions and feelings are evoked in us humans when we interact with AI systems? Which narratives do we embed about AIs in societal discourse that are crucial for our perspective and experience of AI?

So when we put forward the thesis that AI will be a real counterpart for many people, we do so in full recognition of the following assessments:

  • AIs are not intelligent in the conventional sense. They simulate neural networks on the basis of randomness and structured algorithms.
  • AI systems have no consciousness and no emotions.
  • AI systems have no social and ethical boundaries of understanding and have no self-determination. Terms such as “self-determination” are meaningless in the context of AIs, as they are aimed at capabilities that AIs do not have.
  • Relationships and bonds are forged on the basis of shared experiences. Since AIs have no consciousness, there can be no shared experiences (even if there is the illusion of a shared memory).
  • Spontaneous, intuitive understanding of creative, non-linear communication, such as humor, irony or loosely associative conversation, is lacking in AIs.
  • AIs cannot question or evaluate their own actions.

All of these are necessary components to achieve the depth and complexity of human connections.

So why do we still assume that AI will be a real counterpart to us? Because the technical processes behind these digital entities and the associated capabilities are ultimately irrelevant. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how we humans react to it and to what extent a relationship feels real to us, even though we know intellectually that it is largely based on an illusion.

The humanization of the environment

Humanizing the environment is inherent to human beings. Do you remember how we attribute human facial features to smileys? A simple line with two dots can evoke a smile or a connection in us. This shows how our brain works and how we tend to see human qualities in even the simplest things. The same applies to AI-Companions. Even if they are based on algorithms and data patterns, we experience them as something more.

Child sits on the floor and talks to his stuffed animal in a cozy environment.

Stuffed animals are already friends for our children

Imagine a stuffed animal. Technically speaking, it consists of fabric, threads and filling wool. But for a child, it becomes a beloved friend who offers comfort and security. AI-Companions work in a similar way. Its technical structure fades into the background, while its utility and the emotional connection we build with it come to the forefront. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the emotional bond a child could form with a stuffed animal that listens to them, reacts, harbors their secrets and evaluates the difficulties of the day. Just like an interactive, responsive diary. As adults, we will probably not choose a stuffed animal as a counterpart – but the human emotional processes underlying the interaction will remain similar.

The longing for connection

Being human means seeking connection. But connection is not always available. AI will further perfect the illusion of connection created by social media. Our new digital companions will be available around the clock – whether for a late-night chat to help us fall asleep or as a reminder of important appointments. It offers a constant presence that, although technological and not human, can provide a form of companionship and support that appeals to our deep-rooted desire for connection.

The pragmatic everyday benefits

The decisive factor for the spread of AI-Companions will be their practical use in everyday life. Just as the smartphone has gone from being a novelty to a necessity, AI’s immediate benefits could also make concerns about data protection and autonomy fade into the background.

Instead of settling for the reassurance that “AI has no consciousness”, we should focus on how humans could perceive AI as a real counterpart. The important thing is how this tool can contribute to real human development rather than detract from it. As soon as the benefits are tangible and easy to use for everyone, AI-companions will become a normal part of our lives and experiences.

Where is the journey leading?

Interaction with AIs is increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives. Our aim is to shape this change as consciously as possible. At the end of the day, it will be about how we will use AIs – and about learning together to use them in a way that is beneficial to our human development, our personal development.

If you are interested in this question, we would be happy to stay in touch. If you want to keep up to date with our thoughts and experiences, you can subscribe to our newsletter or connect with us on LinkedIn.

Alexander Piotrowski
is curious to see whether humans and robots will one day do yoga together.
Burkhard Pahl
researches AI literacy so that we are not completely overtaken by our toasters.

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