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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Nancy Jo Sales

AI bots chatting up matches on dating apps? This won’t end well

‘You don’t have to talk to your matches anymore – you can have one of the many new AI messaging apps do it, and the person never has to know that it’s not actually you flirting with them.’
‘You don’t have to talk to your matches anymore – you can have one of the many new AI messaging apps do it, and the person never has to know that it’s not actually you flirting with them.’ Photograph: Koshiro K/Alamy

Over the last few months, there’s been a stream of stories in the media that try very hard to convince us that artificial intelligence – AI – is a wonderful new trend in dating app messaging technology. In other words, you don’t have to talk to your matches on dating apps any more – you can have one of the many new AI messaging apps do it, and the person it’s talking to never has to know that it’s not actually you flirting with them in that slightly stilted way.

On Valentine’s Day, Wired ran a piece that argued so strenuously in favor of these AI Cyranos you might almost think it had a stake in the success of this enterprise. “By normalizing this behavior,” said the piece, “we can free people from writing a thousand introductory messages, giving them energy to focus on the humans on the other side.”

So, using technology to trick another human being about who you really are, with the goal of getting them to go on a date with you, is actually a good thing? A more human thing?

Yes, that’s the general idea, according to cheerleaders in the press. The most recent breezy endorsement was from the Washington Post, which ran a story announcing “Welcome to the age of automated dating.” It focused on an app called Rizz, which allegedly “helps users come up with killer opening lines and responses to potential matches”. Startups like Rizz, the story said, are “trying to transform romance through artificial intelligence by optimizing and automating online dating”.

The ludicrousness of this description, which seems straight out of the public relations departments of one of these apps ( and are a couple of other ones), was not lost on readers, some of whom commented: “Oh, hell no!” and “If a potential date used AI to respond to my messages I would end it immediately.” Which is what seven out of 10 people in an OkCupid survey of 30,000 of its users also said: that using AI to message others or create a profile is a violation of trust.

We’ve seen this before – the media promoting a new tech trend without listening to actual people or common sense. That was the case when Tinder launched in 2013. The media rolled out the red carpet for the wonder boys who came up with swiping for dates. Tinder co-founder Sean Rad landed on the cover of Forbes. Nobody really asked what could go wrong, even though there was evidence of problems early on.

And now here we are, 10 years later, and dating apps – which have become the way most people date – are rife with harassment, scams and sexual assault. In 2019, ProPublica reported that more than a third of women in a small survey said they were sexually assaulted by someone they met through a dating app. Last year, researchers at Brigham Young University found that violent sexual predators are using dating apps to target vulnerable victims.

But, curiously, most of the media still doesn’t report on the problems caused by online dating. The pieces extolling these new AI “dating tools” allow only that dating apps can be a “chore”, can be “exhausting”. Could that be because these apps are designed to be addictive? Because presenting people with an endless array of potential romantic partners is perhaps not the best way to get them to commit? (According to the Pew Research Center this year, only 10% of users have found long-term partners through online dating.)

These pieces don’t ask such questions. Instead, they accept the tech-world notion that the answer to any problem with technology is more technology.

Therefore, “automating” online dating – which many users already decry as dehumanizing – is the answer to it being tiresome. Which is ridiculous, when you think about what dating is supposed to be about: getting to know another person, establishing intimacy and trust, and maybe finding love.

Who will be moved to fall in love with someone who sent a chatbot to talk them up? And if you never disclose that that’s what you did, then what kind of relationship do you think you have?

We don’t know yet what effect AI chatbots will have on dating, but we can guess what they won’t do: They won’t make people better at flirting or communicating with each other. They won’t help people pick up on cues. And, sadly, this could enable those with bad intentions to attract their victims. Not every violent sexual predator is charming enough to convince someone to go on a date. But with the help of an AI chatbot, they just might be.

  • Nancy Jo Sales is the author, most recently, of Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno

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