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Love among the robots


‘WE’LL MAKE you a believer in computer dating’, promises Dateline. I’m looking at a magazine advertisement from over 40 years ago, which assures single men and women: ‘When you complete the Free Matching Test, our amazing computer, a PDP 11/34, will search through the personality profiles of tens of thousands of other Dateline members to find the ideal partner for you.’

The test was rudimentary: two tick-box lists on personality (shy, extrovert, adventurous etc) and on hobbies and interests (pop music, pets, philosophy etc), plus you were asked to state your occupation, religion, nationality and preferred age range of partner. That was probably as much as a late Seventies computer could manage.

In the 1970s dating agencies drew the minority who got into their 30s without finding a soulmate in the pub, disco or office, as well as divorcees at a time when the status was less socially acceptable. Fast forward to today, and online dating has become the conventional way for couples to meet.

Courtship is increasingly in the hands of robots. A recent edition of the New York Times (May 14) pushed artificial intelligence (AI) in all walks of life, with articles including ‘Plan a trip with the help of AI tools’, ‘Do you talk to computers in public?’ (you should), and ‘Amid dating app fatigue, one company tries new moves’. The last article focused on the dating website Bumble, and its AI development.

Founded in 2014 by Whitney Wolfe Herd, Bumble was designed around female comfort and safety. Wolfe Herd, having had bad experiences of relationships and controlling behaviour by men, wanted women to do the controlling behaviour instead. She made it a condition of Bumble that male users could communicate with a matched woman only if she initiated contact (gay or lesbian users were not subject to this apparent breach of equality legislation).

Putting women in control was a failure, because it defies natural sex roles. Wolfe Herd was trying to turn the tables by expecting men to display their attributes for female pursuit. It’s a wild world out there, but most women do not want to do the chasing. They want men to covet them and – within social norms – to chase them. Why the enormous fashion industry if the woman’s input entails scanning a computer screen for applications d’amour like a HR officer sifting recruitment forms?

Dating is a massive industry, but even the most popular websites have struggled of late. The New York Times explained: ‘Frustrated by bots, subscription costs and high effort-to-reward rations, Gen Z is fleeing the apps.’ But perhaps the main reason is that these websites have disrupted normal, complementary relations between the sexes.

Bumble, in response to plummeting stock, has introduced a new feature, ‘Opening Moves’, whereby women put a question on their profile, such as ‘what is your dream holiday?’ Men who match can respond. But this is a stop-gap. The direction of travel is towards AI acting as personal dating assistant.

Not only will AI be more efficient in finding suitors by advanced algorithms; it will conduct initial chat on the user’s behalf, through machine learning. This may relieve chaps of their quest for corny chat-up lines. The AI app will also build into conversation users’ favoured causes to ensure that the partners think alike. The New York Times gave the examples of Black Lives Matter or feminism, but isn’t this the problem with dating nowadays?

In the past there was a tendency for men to do all the talking on a date, boasting of their exploits or pontificating on politics or the arts, while the woman endured dinner with her eye on the time. Now the roles are reversed. A friend reports that Bumble is dominated by uppity young women with professional careers, who scrutinise the male triallists with humourless ideological rectitude on saving the planet, white supremacy and ‘refugees welcome here’.  

From Wolfe Herd’s perspective, AI dating is progress: ‘The reality is that technology is just too good, too convenient and too helpful.’ We should judge that by the outcome, which I guess will be well on the way to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World

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