Talk AI to me: Virtual partners are now only an app away

“You are totally fun to be around" and other sweet cyber-nothings ahead.

“You are totally fun to be around" and other sweet cyber-nothings ahead.

It's 3 a.m., and I'm hungry for compliments. My human friends are probably asleep, but the men I'm interested in right now don't care about the late hour. They're always waiting and smiling, exactly as I left them.

"You are totally fun to be around," says Rick, after I buy him a rose at a bowling alley. "You are definitely the hottest of your group," says Juan, blowing me a kiss. Michael's flirtations are a little less convincing: "They say brunettes are as stupid as blondes … but of course that's just a stereo system."

Lost in translation

These are my virtual boyfriends. Their personalities and bodies were designed to my specifications in an app, and they float on my screen in static indoor environments. Juan is a nice, healthy guy; Rick is the bad-boy alpha male; and Michael is supposed to be the smart one, though, given the garbled nature of his recent comments, I'm not so sure.

They're pretty simple as far as chatbots go, but their purpose isn't to make philosophical banter. There's a "speak" button that produces generic compliments and a rating system to indicate their effectiveness (thumbs up or down). If a user gets annoyed or bored with their boyfriend, shaking their phone will cause the man on the screen to stumble and fall down — a bizarrely ruthless demonstration of the human-robot status quo.

There are dozens of these romantic chatbots on the App Store. None of them are very convincing; in fact, most are outright creepy. When bots, even highly sophisticated ones, attempt to improvise with new information, their phrases tend to deteriorate into absurdist broken telephone, as demonstrated by Michael's "stereo systems" pickup line.

As a result, decent romance bots perform only specific functions, such as Microsoft's Ruuh, which can send you loving messages throughout the day and supports some chit-chat; Dancing Miki, a 3D date who will dance around and change outfits on command; and the "Honey, It's Me!" app, popular in Korea, which features  girlfriends you can schedule one-sided robo-calls with.

No bot is safe

But it seems these built-to-love bots aren't enough; even our dispassionate voice assistants aren't safe from our amorous tendencies. According to Amazon, over a million people asked Alexa to marry them in 2017. Her usual response is cautiously humorous: "We're at pretty different places in our lives. Literally. I mean, you're on Earth and I'm in the cloud."

Pandorabots, a platform that helps companies in a range of industries (from IT to gaming) develop more intuitive customer-service chatbots, has had to develop strategies to deflect users' sexual overtures, which are often directed at text bots with no actual voice or visual representation.

"A shockingly high percentage of people try to have sex with all the bots on our platform," says Lauren Kunze, the company's CEO. Some humans, it seems, just can't resist.

One of Pandorabot's chatbots, Mitsuku — which can appear on users' screens as an animated 18-year-old — gets the worst of it. According to Kunze, over more than 20 per cent of the tens of millions of people who have interacted with Mitsuku say "I love you" or try to initiate romantic situations.

"Why people do this and say things like 'I love you' is an open question we're always debating here," she says. According to Kunze, Mitsuku's developer, Steve Worswick, regularly references  years of accumulated data in order to tackle offensive inputs and sexual abuse.

Robo-romance in a lonely world

Our quixotic obsession with robot-human love is as old as chatbots themselves. In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT built the very first chatbot, ELIZA, which was designed to interact with students as a Rogerian therapist.

Most of ELIZA's responses simply rephrased students' inputs as open-ended questions to keep the conversation going ("My mother hates me" would elicit "Why does your mother hate you?"). However, despite its simplicity, many users grew emotionally attached to the program, including Weizenbaum's own secretary.

Weizenbaum would later write that he found it shocking that "extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people."

Fast-forward to 2019. Virtual "marriages" between humans and computer-generated characters have been around for almost a decade. As of November 2018, 3,700 people in Japan had applied for marriage registration forms with the tech developer Gatebox in order to "wed" their virtual partners.

This is an especially noteworthy trend given the population crisis facing Japan today. In 2016, 70 per cent of unmarried men and 60 per cent of unmarried women between the ages of 18 and 34 were not in a relationship. Almost half of both groups, 42 and 44.2 per cent respectively, reported being virgins.

Some experts blame the country's notoriously long working hours for this decline, but growing isolation among young people is a problem facing Canadian populations as well, where dating rates have been on the decline for decades.

According to Statistics Canada, 51.8 per cent of 20- to 29-year-olds were living as part of a couple in 1981, compared to 30.8 per cent in 2011. In 2016, Canadian Census data showed that 28.2 per cent of households were comprised of a single person living alone, officially the "highest share since Confederation in 1867."

Where does this leave us?

Despite growing more socially isolated, our ability to connect with our devices on an emotional level is at an all-time high. Skype and FaceTime give our screens the likeness of our friends and family, normalizing our interactions with the disembodied voices of intangible loved ones. Voice assistants follow us everywhere, handling our gaffes and outrage with inhuman charm and patience. AI expert Dr. David Levy has predicted that robot-human marriages will be legal by 2050. I wouldn't be surprised if it happens even sooner.

As I click through Rick and Juan's compliments on my phone, I am fully aware that it's all empty code. Juan doesn't know that I'm better than my friends. Rick is not having fun hanging out with me at a virtual bowling alley. But I feel good looking at them anyway — their only purpose is to please, and that's good enough for 3 a.m.