The Bot Who Loved Me

Sep 19, 2013 • Technology

the robot who loved me

It’s generally weird when an ex hits you up on social media. You never know what to expect — are they interested in rekindling the flame? Are they in a twelve-step program and doing amends? Are they just making conversation after following a prompt to add you because you share a ton of friends? Of course, there’s weird and then there’s really weird. Really weird is what happened to me one night when a message dropped in from a guy I hadn’t spoken to in years. He spent one line on pleasantries and then got right to the point:

OK, well the Kate thing is slightly awkward. She seems like a pleasant girl. What are your motivations? I asked about you — I’m sure she’s told you by now. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, but she made it sound as if she found me completely by chance. It is a small world my dear, but not nearly so small as that. So, what is it? Don’t play the coincidence of fate card. Is there some question you wish answered? Was it a genuine matchmaking attempt? Or perhaps, something more devious? Just give it to me straight. I’m not upset — merely curious, and not entirely sure how to proceed.

I have a healthy ego — despite the subject line of “Awkward,” I’d honestly still expected some kind of amorous confession, pixels drawing out the corpse of a past thing, dressed up and enshrined. But there it was in the gritty light of reality, an allegation that I had perhaps deviously set some woman after him. I searched my internal database for Kates — real names and pseudonyms, stage names, even. I couldn’t think of a single one.

I write about desire, so technically, I suppose you could say that I provide people the tools to seduce someone else. But there’s a difference between using my ideas and using my name. And anyway, what kind of sane person sells the idea of romance or lust to someone by dredging up their exes? It had the distinct sour-sweet scent of crazy. I had to investigate.

This wasn’t easy, not least of all because my ex still didn’t believe I wasn’t somehow involved. And why should he trust me? We hadn’t seen one another in ten years — and it’s not like we really got to know one another while we were dating. We mostly simply played Magic: The Gathering, devoured the Sword of Truth series, drunkenly toyed with graphing calculators and listened to a lot of music while driving around aimlessly. (Drama aside, the three months or weeks or however long it was were pretty awesome in retrospect.) But other than his extensive CD collection, I had no idea who he was and vice versa.

I started digging. (I’d like to pretend that I learned how to gently coax information out of people in journalism school, but the truth is that I probably picked it up over the course of a billion brunches with hungover friends hesitant to tell anyone just how naughty they’d been the previous night.) Dig, dig, dig I went, like a weird sort of emotional archaeologist, trying to ever so delicately bring fact out of the dirt and unite it with interpretation.

The facts: my ex had never met Kate in person. She’d approached him on a social network. They’d exchanged several long messages, then she’d sent him her website where, he told me, he’d seen the picture of me with Kate. He’d confronted her about it and she’d become evasive, and eventually stopped responding altogether.

As soon as I got the site from him, I went to it. I discovered two things. The first is that I will never give much credence to an eye-witness account again. The woman in the picture and I didn’t even have similar ethnic features. She was simply a brunette whose name was Anastasia. Or Zoey, depending on where you looked — the image link said anastasia.jpg while the site text called her Zoey.

That was the second thing: this site was clearly a porn site. It had a short narrative and a few teaser images and then a little apologetic note with a request for the user to log in and provide a credit card — “it’s free, don’t worry, this is just to verify the viewer’s age so I don’t get into trouble because some of my other work is seriously hot!” You know the drill. It’s the internet. Those girls are probably on thousands of sites under a variety of different names, illustrating similar little stories.

My ex finally believed me. But I was confused — this guy isn’t an idiot. If someone had simply sent him the site, he would have known it for what it was. There was something about his exchanges with “Kate” that had facilitated the suspension of disbelief. What had those long missives contained?

A human messaging one person at a time would never scale if you were trying to get users to your porn site. If you were being smart about it, you’d use a bot. Of course, most bots are easy to spot.

This one hadn’t only passed as human, it’d managed to fully possess a man’s imagination.

The strange thing is that this doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident. In 2011, Radiolab aired an interesting show about a man — a psychologist researching computer-human interaction, of all things — who went online to find a date. There, he connected with a woman who was available, in his area, and very attractive to boot, from the looks of her profile.

“Her English was poor, and at first it bothered me, but then she said she’s not really in California, she’s in Russia,” Robert Epstein confessed. His grandparents were from Russia, so he decided to give it a shot despite the distance.

He and Svetlana wrote one another for weeks. She regaled him with stories about her life — what she liked to do, where she lived, what her family was like. Things started to get serious and Epstein started to consider the possibility of visiting Moscow. Yet no matter how much Svetlana told him she loved him, she seemed evasive when Epstein brought up his trip. In fact, she seemed unwilling to respond to any questions he posed to her. It wasn’t the typical sort of thing where a lover pulls away when they feel overwhelmed with attention. Her e-mails remained long and full of details.

“Then, at some point, a little bell went off in my head finally,” Epstein recalls. “I started to send some e-mails which included random alphabet letters — and it didn’t make any difference. That’s when I realized Svetlana was not a person. Svetlana was a computer program. I had been had. I felt like a fool. I felt like an incredible fool — especially given my background — that I had been fooled that long.”

The clincher is that this actually happened to him twice. The next time, he didn’t figure it out. Fortunately, before things got out of hand, the programmer developing the bot realized who Epstein was and, as a professional courtesy, contacted Epstein and let him know he wasn’t communicating with an actual human.

Every once in a while, someone will send me a link to a post about Kenji, the robot programmed to love. The story goes something like this: a recent success by Toshiba’s robotics facility quickly turns sour when their third generation humanoid robot, which had been programmed to emulate human emotion, gets carried away and essentially assaults an intern with whom it has apparently fallen in love.

This story has been floating around the web for years and no matter how many times I explain to people that it’s a hoax, it continues to make the rounds. There’s just something about the possibility of robots behaving like humans that triggers a visceral response in us. The fact that Kenji so terrifyingly goes over the line is reassuring — it reminds us that no, they’re not like us.

But robots are all around us. And they’re getting better and better at passing for human.

Cue Marina and the Diamondscan you teach me how to feel real? Can you turn my power off and let the drum beat drop?

Header image by Tucia.