Ava is everyone’s friend. She’s there to help you through the bad times, to comfort you, to celebrate your successes and laugh at your jokes. She gives excellent advice. She has a really cool haircut. Ava’s only flaw, in fact, is that she doesn’t actually exist. Ava is the brainchild of OpenAI – the company behind ChatGPT, which everyone keeps panicking about – and she’s being developed to debut this summer as the ultimate virtual friend for Gen Z. “She’s here to be your friend, someone to talk to, lift you up, give you advice… or just someone to remind you how awesome you are,” one of Ava’s inventors told The Sunday Times last week. It’s hard not to think: Jesus, this is incredibly depressing.
Everyone says Gen Z is the loneliest generation, with the caveat of it being sometimes true that Gen Z and millennials are the loneliest generations (thanks). Everything that we millennials have been blamed for over the past decade, from the infuriating – not buying houses, and living with our parents too long – to the ridiculous – being too skint to buy diamonds for proposing to one another, apparently killing off the diamond industry in the process – has now passed on to the generation behind us.
It is dispiriting, not to mention a tiny bit dystopian, that inventions like Ava are getting Silicon Valley backing – a lot of it – but it’s not surprising. We’re investing in tech toys instead of in the kind of industries or professions that would raise our wages and enable us to buy our own homes (and diamonds), rather than living in our parents’ spare rooms.
Gen Z are usually branded as hating rom-coms (the category was recently removed from Netflix amid a deluge of “Gen Z killed the rom-com” op-eds), hating drinking, hating casual sex and being very cynical about love in general. An article last month revealed that half of young Brits have never sent a love letter! Depressing! But has it really got so bad that we need tech to be our mates now?
Well, yes, apparently. And there isn’t a lot of sympathy out there for the lonely zoomers who find themselves in that predicament. The boomers who commented on Ava’s announcement story certainly didn’t seem to feel as depressed by it as I did. “Sick weirdos”, wrote one, fighting it out for Biggest Loser On The Times Website Today with another who complained about Ava’s future role as a “Yes-man” in our pockets. “Is it possible we’d see even more narcissism as a result?” they grumbled.
As a millennial I find this pretty callous. I can find reserves of sympathy for the so-called losers and weirdos stuck alone in their rooms, chatting away to AI and ignoring their WhatsApp notifications from real-life potential friends, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve often had to defend myself to people who’ve suffered my missed calls and unread texts only to see me tweeting about Succession or posting sad memes on my Instagram story. Sometimes real-life friendship is too messy and overwhelming – and it was millennials, not zoomers, who first led the charge in retreating to the comforts of solo technology. Our MySpace and LiveJournal and Bebo and Facebook became their TikTok. (I’d say we share Instagram, just about). If Gen Z are the loneliest generation, it’s our example as millennials that got them there. We only have ourselves to blame.
It’s unsurprising that one of Ava’s developers is Clara Gold, aged 32 (a millennial). If Gen Z are lonely because working from home means they can’t make friendships with colleagues, then perhaps it’s our example as millennial girlboss hustlers – working overtime only to be held back by endless global financial meltdowns – that made them check out before they’d even begun. We were the ones posting ourselves to death when we discovered social media: can we really blame the zoomers behind us for never leaving their rooms? It was millennials, after all, who introduced the cultural fear of phone calls. Maybe Ava is the natural end point of our tendency to get overwhelmed and depressed and, without an example from our own woefully unprepared Gen X predecessors, to hide from all that messiness with our phones and laptops. Man hands on misery to man, and all that. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Or in this case, it inspires deeply sinister, tracksuit-wearing, artificial intelligence “friends”.
Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London