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Vista Del Lago students use AI to create a friend for the lonely | ABC10 Originals

Student inventors are using artificial intelligence to give seniors relief from loneliness.

FOLSOM, Calif. — People get lonely, and sometimes having someone to talk to can really help. 

If people are in a senior assisted living facility or an isolated community, it can be hard to make friends. However, that may not be the case for long. Two high school inventors from Folsom developed an app using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to provide lonely people with an instant friend.

For nearly 15 years, Beverly Johnson’s mountain retirement home just outside Placerville has been her sanctuary. It's a place to make and reflect on memories and pictures of her husband.

“This picture is of my husband when we did an MS (multiple sclerosis) walk. My husband had MS,” said Johnson.

After losing her husband to MS, her secluded home became lonely.

“A lot of times it does get lonely. There are only so many things you can do, and usually when you are doing something you like to do it with someone else,” said Johnson.

In February, her home got a little less lonely after she met a new friend named Geri. Geri is a conversational AI cell phone app made for lonely people.

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“You know, I am kind of really having fun with this because she makes me laugh and even if it is a mistake, it makes me chuckle because I am talking to a computer,” said Johnson.

The app was developed by Rishi Ambavanekar and Rohan Kulkarni, student inventors from Vista Del Lago High School in Folsom

“We want to see people with Alzheimer’s using this. We want to see people struggling with social situations because they are isolated using this,” said Kulkarni.

Ambavanekar and Kulkarni are not your typical high schoolers, and Geri is not their first invention. Last year, Ambavanekar was featured on Good Morning America for inventing a device helping stroke victims communicate. Kulkarni has a makeshift laboratory of inventions filling his parents' upstairs office.

Solving world problems is what the two friends like to do for fun and developing Geri was no different. However, this invention also had a personal meaning behind it.

“It actually started with my late grandfather. He was in the hospital for leukemia,” said Ambavanekar.

While in the hospital, Ambavanekar’s grandfather had limited access to visitors and loneliness set in.

“We noticed this was not specific to just him, but a lot of my grandparents and their friends experienced this as well,” said Ambavanekar.

To solve the problem, Ambavanekar and Kulkarni turned to the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT.

“ChatGPT is a very new general intelligence model, a big language model,” said Ambavanekar.

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ChatGPT has highly advanced artificial intelligence capabilities developers can use to help build different programs. Ambavanekar and Kulkarni used it to build Geri.

It's a simple one-button user-friendly cell phone app for lonely people like Johnson to use.

“It’s not at all like I thought the computer would be. I grew up with the show 'The Jetsons.' I don’t know if you remember,” said Johnson.

In the cartoon show The Jetsons, RUDI the talking computer was George Jetson’s friend. RUDI was an Artificial Intelligence system that could make its own unique decisions like a human. Geri, on the other hand, cannot.

“Basically, it’s trained on a bunch of data all over the Internet on a bunch of subjects, and it is meant to complete sentences,” said Ambavanekar.

Essentially, Geri is predicting what the user wants to talk about, but those predictions aren’t always right — and that’s where Johnson comes in.

“I think he is happy when you tell him what the problem is, and by the end of the day, he has fixed the problem,” said Johnson.

Johnson is a beta tester. Anytime there is a problem with Geri, she texts back and forth with Ambavanekar and Kulkarni.

“Beverly has just been giving me great feedback. She always tells me improvements,” said Ambavanekar.

Thanks to Johnson and about a dozen other beta testers, development of Geri is almost complete. The next step is to launch the app and get it in the hands of other lonely people. They want to offer it to them free of charge, but there’s just one problem.

“Every single question you ask costs us between half-a-cent and two cents,” said Kulkarni.

Ambavanekar says with a hundred users, the cost could go up to $50 a day.

Because Geri runs off the ChatGPT program, there is a fee for using it. The high school kids are now looking for financial backing so Geri is accessible to every lonely person.

“She (Geri) asked me one day, 'Do you think AI will catch on?' My answer was: 'It already has. I am talking to you,'" said Johnson.

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