In February of 2013, I wrote a blog post about how to create a virtual agent / intelligent assistant for your business. At the time, I presented my findings about two virtual agent technology companies that I’d researched: MyCberTwin and Chatbots4u.com. Both companies have gone through some changes since I tried them out over a year ago. MyCberTwin was acquired by IBM back in the spring of this year. Chatbots4u is still up and running, but a quick look at their website has me wondering what direction they’re heading in.
Chatbots4u apparently offers hosting services for business-focused intelligent assistants, but the site’s primary goal seems to be to offer a free platform for the creation and hosting of recreational chatbots. As I noted last year, the Chatbots4u platform seems to be aimed at a younger, international crowd. At the time, the most popular chatbots were clones of teen idols like Justin Bieber. Bieber still seems to be popular, but the site is now overrun with an explosion of barely clad girlfriend bots. A recent peek led me to believe that the site is no longer G or even PG-rated, if you get my drift. What, I wonder, is the deal with all these girl bots and the penchant of young male botmasters for lewd conversation?
The most well known chatbots have generally been given a female persona. There’s ELIZA and A.L.I.C.E, for starters. Neither of those chatter bot instantiations were sexpots, in terms of their conversational databases. Siri uses a female voice. Cortana is based on the Halo video game character, who clearly is the product of adolescent male fantasies. And then you have Samantha (with Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voiceovers) in Spike Jonze’s movie Her. The disembodied intelligent assistant Samantha exudes female sexuality and uses her charms to arouse and satisfy her male end user.
All of this evidence leads to an obvious question: is it a wide-spread “nerdy guy” fantasy to engage in explicitly adult conversation with a computer software program masquerading as Venus? If we assume that the answer is yes, the next question would be: why? Do nerdy guys lack the gumption to engage a real flesh and blood young woman in conversation? Are the girls of today too unapproachable? Is it really more satisfying to talk to a chatbot that’s restricted to a handful of vapid phrases than to interact with another human being?
The popularity of opposite-sex chatbots probably says something about contemporary society. Exactly what that might be, I can only speculate. Are nerdy guys less lucky with the ladies than their less-nerdy counterparts? And what even classifies as “nerdy” these days? How many teenage boys don’t spend most of their time with their face in some gadget or other? Perhaps for that very reason, boys are more comfortable talking to animations of females on their mobile screens than asking a real girl out on a date.
Is there anything fundamentally wrong with all this? I must admit that the whole chatbot as sexbot thing strikes me as unseemly. I’m probably being prudish though. Adult content, or whatever you want to label it, has been around since human beings could talk. (Well, probably before that). But it’s disappointing if all Moore’s Law and the other exponential advances in computing technology get us are new ways to be morons.
If there’s a problem with the whole female chatter bot scene, in my opinion it would be that the majority of such bots are created by men. Chatbot hotties are programmed to utter what boys think they should say, or want them to say. They don’t speak in the same nuanced way that a real girl would. They don’t get offended, run away, or call the cops. Whatever boys learn by engaging in conversation with chatbots (if anything), they’d best not try a similar approach when speaking with the girls from their school or neighborhood. And they’d better not expect the same outcomes. But guys are smart enough to know the difference between fake girls and real ones, right?
What if women were to design chatbots that gave pubescent boys real, sound advice on how to talk to girls? Would any young men take an interest in this sort of wise advisor chatbot? The advisor could address such topics as: how to find out about a girl’s interests, how to show empathy when talking to a girl, how to make pleasant small talk, proven ice breakers to start the conversation, topics to avoid, what not to say when you’re getting to know a girl, how to give a girl a compliment without offending her or putting her on the spot, and so on. Are inexperienced, nerdy guys receptive to that type of mentoring from a chatbot, or do they just want to get straight to the dirty talk? An experiment to research this question might be interesting.
As intelligent assistants become more prevalent and as they improve their ability to mimic human conversation, what will our expectations be for their behavior? Will we try to shape them to be the dream partners of our fantasies, and will our human relationships suffer as a result? I’d be surprised if studies on just this topic aren’t underway at a university somewhere. In the meantime, we’ll continue to focus on the many innovative people around the globe who have loftier visions for how intelligent assistants can improve our lives.