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Replika’s new AI therapy app tries to bring you to a zen island

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Replika’s new AI therapy app tries to bring you to a zen island

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AI companion company Replika partnered with the team behind the AI dating simulator Blush to release Tomo, a wellness and meditation app with an AI-generated avatar guiding users. Its the kind of concept that seemed destined as soon as generative AI took off, but in the time I’ve spent with Tomo, I found myself wondering if I can ever open up to an AI like I can with a real therapist.

Tomo, now generally available on the Apple iOS store, brings users to a virtual island retreat, greeted by an AI-generated avatar guide named… Tomo. Tomo offers programs to help people explore personal growth, mental well-being, and fulfillment. It also provides guided meditation, yoga, affirmation classes, and, most of all, talk therapy. 

Users can try out Tomo for free for three days, after which they have to choose between paying $7.99 a week or $49.99 per year. 

I got to try Tomo before the launch. The first time I launched the app, I was greeted by spa music, signaling that the app wants users to feel like they’re in a retreat rather than a therapist’s office. Then the avatar Tomo, drawn as a young woman standing in front of a traditional Japanese house on an island, asks me if I’m ready to begin. Tomo started asking me some questions to figure out what I hoped to work on. 

“We worked with coaches and psychologists to come up with the programs for Tomo. We focused on the most common problems but also thought about what would work best with conversational AI,” Eugenia Kuyda, founder and CEO of Replika, tells The Verge in an email. “We had a lot of experience building coaching programs for Replika with clinical psychologists from UC Berkeley; for Tomo, we expanded that to mindfulness teachers to combine Eastern and Western practices.”

The approach felt like texting a therapist on text-based therapy services like BetterHelp. I already go to in-person therapy, so the experience of sharing more about myself was not new. Yet I have never been a text therapy fan; I prefer stream-of-consciousness conversation to typing out my anxieties. But for the sake of a hands-on, I kept texting with Tomo. It began building a profile based on my answers. My profile shows I like to focus on work, have money anxieties, and need help coping with stress; in other words, a journalist existing in late-stage capitalism. Tomo summarized our conversation, but it did mistakenly assume I had a “determination to pursue pottery” when really I’m just curious about it as a possible stress reliever.

Screenshot of a Tomo therapy session.
Screenshot: Luka, Inc.

After the initial conversation, users can explore other activities or “areas” of the island. There was no virtual pottery for me to apparently pursue; instead, the programs Tomo offers range from mastering the art of work-life balance, driving motivation, and improving sleep, which comes in the form of modules that users can finish in anywhere from two weeks to a month. Eventually, the developers said, people can unlock 3D objects around the island “that facilitate a deeper exploration of their inner sanctuary.”

Tomo, the avatar guide, is supposed to be powered by generative AI to have better conversations with users. But honestly, talking to Tomo didn’t feel much different from speaking with a regular chatbot. I couldn’t get it to participate in a little art therapy with me (it wouldn’t draw) or retail therapy (it couldn’t help with shopping or travel tasks I tried to assign it) — which meant that instead of feeling like a fully formed digital being on which I could unload my troubles, it really just felt like someone put background music on ChatGPT.

And while I found the guided meditations helpful, it also felt like other guided meditation apps I’ve tried before. Eventually I found myself losing interest, mainly because by the time I remembered to open Tomo, I already had assignments from my therapist to work on.

Using AI for mental health therapy remains controversial, especially as privacy protections still fall short for many technology-based mental health solutions. It’s a tricky business, one for which Replika, which is behind Tomo’s digital avatar, has already gotten into hot water. Italy banned Replika last year for failing to meet security standards in its Replika chat app. But Replika’s CEO says it is taking more precautions with Tomo, though the company did not give me its full privacy policy.

“We don’t share any information with any third parties and rely on a subscription business model. What users tell Tomo stays private between them and their coach,” Kuyda said. 

Tomo is only available on iPhones; an Android version will be released later this year. Replika also plans to launch an app on Apple’s Vision Pro, paving the way for an even more immersive Tomo-guided meditation.

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