Love in the time of bots

[This article from The Washington Post explores how compelling ‘artificial’ social interaction can be, and the implications of that as technology evolves; the provocative film Ex Machina, which I just saw with a group of presence scholars, carries the logic even further, to a physically embodied rather than virtual technology. –Matthew]

Ava from Ex Machina

Love in the time of bots

By Dominic Basulto
March 17, 2015

Convincing people to have a romantic relationship with a computer might be easier than it sounds. At this year’s SXSW in Austin, a chatbot on Tinder convinced a number of users that she was a cute 25-year-old woman eager to strike up a romantic relationship. Too bad “Ava” turned out to be just an Instagram account for a character in an upcoming film (“Ex Machina”) about the implications for romance in the era of artificial intelligence.

In many ways, “Ava” was playing a simplified form of Alan Turing’s famous “imitation game” by trying to convince human conversational partners that it was human — or at least human enough to get Tinder users to watch a trailer for a movie. In one conversational exchange captured by AdWeek, Ava used a typical chatbot tactic – keeping a human off-balance by asking questions you wouldn’t expect from a computer (“Have you ever been in love?” and “What makes you human?”) – to convince male, techie-hipsters at SXSW that she was a real woman.

We’ve already seen evidence that carrying on a relationship with a bot is easier than it sounds. Consider the Invisible Boyfriend (and Invisible Girlfriend) experience, which really started as a clever way to use technology to cover up a lack of a romantic significant other. It turns out the experience was so addictive that people started to fall for the Invisible Boyfriend bot — even when they knew it was a bot and that the whole relationship was made up — and paid for — from the beginning.

In an era when teens rely so much on text messages to launch, maintain and end relationships, it’s perhaps no surprise that a bot experience such as Invisible Boyfriend or Ava could take off. If you think about the typical teen romance carried out via text message these days, it’s essentially a chatbot experience powered by a really powerful computer — the human brain. The witty reply, the shared insider lingo between two lovers, the concerned text from a lover demanding a rapid reply — this could all be simulated by an artificially intelligent chatbot.

No wonder AI thought leader Ray Kurzweil has suggested that a real-life human-AI romance might be possible in as little as 15 years. In his review of the 2013 Spike Jonze film “Her” (in which the character played by Joaquin Phoenix carries on a romantic relationship with a disembodied operating system called “Samantha”), Kurzweil said he expected similar types of advances by the year 2029: “Samantha herself I would place at 2029, when the leap to human-level AI would be reasonably believable.”

Where things could really take off is when new technologies give computers the ability to interact with humans in radically new ways that go beyond just holding intelligent conversations. An AI-powered computer that could learn to analyze your facial expressions or look into your eyes and sense your moods could theoretically simulate the types of emotional responses and triggers that we typically associate with a human relationship. Discussing the central plot line of “Her,” Kurzweil says that your romantic partner might not even need to have a physical body, as long as there’s a “virtual visual presence.”

So imagine a computer that could convince you that it was actually physically interacting with you. Kurzweil sees this happening via a type of virtual reality experience: “With emerging eye-mounted displays that project images onto the wearer’s retinas and also look out at the world, we will indeed soon be able to do exactly that. When we send nanobots into the brain — a circa-2030s scenario by my timeline — we will be able to do this with all of the senses, and even intercept other people’s emotional responses.”

The next frontier, then, could be the creation of romantic experiences in the bedroom for humans using virtual reality devices such as the Oculus Rift. There have already been some very NSFW attempts at adapting the world of romance for the virtual reality headset, and while the original experiences were largely considered to be overhyped, the elusive goal for some remains a type of highly customizable “Oculus Rift XXX” experience, in which you can choose the appearance of your partner as well as which activities you will pursue in a virtual bedroom. Imagine the types of bonds that could be formed when your Invisible Boyfriend suddenly becomes a visible, AI-powered Christian Grey in a virtual reality world where anything is possible.

One thing is clear — technology is already changing the way humans think about relationships, whether it’s via something simple such as texting or something more complex, such as artificial intelligence or virtual reality. When so much of our lives are spent consuming digital 0’s and 1’s, is it any surprise that computers are starting to factor into those relationships in interesting — and some might say disturbing — new ways? In the future, the way to your romantic partner’s heart might not be flowers, chocolates or jewelry — it might be the ability to code a really cool romantic experience for his or her digital device.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.


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