If you had to, who would you send in your place to go on a first date?
Your best friend, whose brain is a treasure chest of your most humiliating secrets? Too much of a risk. Work colleague? Probably doesn’t know enough about you to really sell you as a good match. A family member reads instant sabotage. But what about a computer-generated avatar that’s been trained by artificial intelligence to be exactly like you, Single White Female-style (minus all the murder)?
If you think that sounds dystopian, then welcome to dystopia. The AI-trained avatar in question is actually a recently-launched feature from Gen Z dating app Snack. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a newly-“intelligent” era of online dating.
Over the last year, dating apps have been tripping over themselves to debut their latest AI features. Tinder has been testing a slew of them, including video verification and a photo selection tool that helps choose your hottest pics. A couple of weeks ago, its parent company Match Group even announced a whole new team dedicated to AI and other emerging tech.
Previously unheard of apps, such as YourMove AI and Teaser AI have all come out swinging with chatbots to help you craft flirty zingers. Meanwhile, Elate Date has launched an AI-powered dating assistant called Dara; video dating app FilterOff has developed an AI matchmaker; and an app for straight guys called CupidBot has created a morally dubious bot that swipes and chats for you. It even includes two AI dating assistants called Rizz, for fuck’s sake.
Although these apps – a mix of standalone dating apps and bots that can be used in conjunction with the heavy hitters – aren’t drawing enough users to knock Tinder and Hinge off their thrones just yet, they do hint at a phenomenon that could become more mainstream. That is: a more ethically dubious era of dating apps where it isn’t clear whether users are talking to a person or a bot.
So, what’s the deal? Why the sudden obsession with AI dating?
After speaking to a number of these app bosses, the party line seems to be that AI will make your dating app experience more efficient, thus enabling you to find love quicker and in a more streamlined way. Less swiping, more dating – what else is new? The truth is, of course, more complicated. But more on that later.
For now, let’s delve into some of the AI features on offer from these various companies. First up: sophisticated matchmaker tools, which let you effortlessly syphon off daters based on certain traits like height, age, or vaccination status. FilterOff’s Matchmaker Pro incorporates a mix of AI and, as CEO Zach Schleien puts it, a personal (see: human) touch. During a 30-minute chat, users will talk to a real-life FilterOff matchmaker about what they’re looking for in a potential date. Then, armed with this information, along with an AI sidekick, that matchmaker will curate a batch of matches, contact them on your behalf, and set up a 10-minute video date (a feature that aims to prevent catfishing). Schleien says the formula is roughly 70 per cent AI and 30 per cent human intervention.
“The AI is designed to handle the bulk of the filtering, based on user-defined criteria like age, physical attributes, interests, career and lifestyle choices,” he explains. “As you continue to chat with our matchmaker, the algorithm improves based on specific feedback. For example: if our human matchmaker shares a prospective profile and the user isn’t interested due to a certain trait, the algorithm is updated in real-time to reflect their tastes.”
Schleien says that one of the main benefits of a human-AI matchmaking combo is that the former can interpret things that a machine might miss, via subtle social cues – tone, body language, emotional responses – and feed these into the AI for deeper compatibility.
This human focus is, ironically, a major part of most AI dating apps’ marketing campaigns – even when, in the case of the aforementioned AI avatars, humans are nowhere to be seen.
“When we thought about how [young people] date, we looked to which technology was going to dominate in the future and pairing AI with avatars became the obvious choice,” says Kim Kaplan, the CEO of video dating app Snack, which launched in 2021. “Avatars aren’t new, and Gen Z is used to creating them as a representation of themselves in games or socially with Snap Bitmojis. Snack just takes this online version of you and gives it your personality.”
Once you’ve created your avatar in the app, you chat with it; this helps it learn how to mimic you in its responses to potential matches. “The training ranges from simple yes/no questions through to you selecting a tone of voice,” Kaplan explains. While you’re offline at uni, the pub or, say, out on another date, your avatar can date for you, building a portfolio of potential dates that you can pursue when you return to the app.
When Jaimie Ding, a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, tested the app, she found that the bots were relatively successful at making realistic conversation. But they were also partial to making plans with other bots without knowing whether their flesh-and-blood counterpart was free. Plus, Ding says she got tired of hearing different bot-matches repeat identical messages in the same chillingly cheerful tone – which, fair enough.
While some people thrive on the intoxicating delirium of matching and messaging with a new person, others may find the whole thing to be a chore. If you can get a bot to do the initial hard work for you, weeding out the bores, the incompatibles and the dickheads, why wouldn’t you?
But if a conversation is going stale, should you really get AI to drag it on? Another problem arises when you consider that many of these chatbots operate in a covert way, so the person your AI is talking to doesn’t know they’re talking to a bot. That is, unless you opt to tell them later down the line, which itself could be a turn-off.
“I’d feel so deceived,” says Kat, 29, from London. She hasn’t yet experimented with this new generation of AI-powered dating apps. “It’s just completely erasing the natural human connection, and I’d assume they wouldn’t be able to hold a natural flowing convo in real life if we ever did go on a date.”
Luke, the CEO of CupidBot (whose founders wish to remain anonymous), doesn’t think this duplicity poses an ethical quandary. Then again, his app, a tool that swipes and covertly chats for you with the aim of getting as many phone numbers as possible, is targeted at straight men looking for “high quality matches”.
“The data shows that the first few back and forths required to get a woman’s phone number don’t tend to be particularly memorable, nor have any effect on a date occurring,” says Luke. “What really skews the probability of a date is how you build rapport once you do have her number.” (A casual poll conducted by Vice revealed that these conversations do actually matter to women.) Still, he adds, “we do strongly advise our users to tell the women once they’ve gotten their contact information.”
The San Francisco-born CupidBot, created by former employees of “top tech companies” in Silicon Valley, launched in April 2023 and, at the time of writing, has over 20,000 users. The bot is trained on each individual users’ past matches in order to learn their “type”. It will then only swipe right on those who fit the bill.
Luke says the goal of the bot – which works on your regular dating apps – isn’t to saturate the market with artificial conversation nor objectify women, but to “eliminate the volume of time dating apps have architected for men to get matches”. Although anyone can download CupidBot, its target is straight men because, as Luke sees it, they tend to get less matches than women and therefore “suffer the most from dating apps”. Stats show that women face a disproportionate amount of harassment on dating apps, though, so take that with a pinch of salt.
Alessandro Gandini, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Milan and the co-author of a study into dating apps’ commodification of love, posits that these tools might, paradoxically, actually make dating apps more authentic.
“On apps, it’s not about presenting your best self, but a self that works, and one that gets matches,” he says. “So there’s already a level of deception. You can potentially be a lot different in real life from the self you project onto these apps. AI-driven forms of matchmaking [and chatting] make this deception multiply itself, so, in a few years, a user won’t come to a dating app thinking about finding someone authentic because [they know that] nobody will be their real self – which is, to an extent, more authentic.”
These technological advancements are, arguably, a natural progression for dating apps, which, like all capitalist ventures, are just striving to keep people engaged and boost profits. But they also say a lot about the current dating landscape. On apps at least, that’s a space blighted by shitty behaviour, lacklustre conversations and a lot of hard work for little reward. It seems the only solution to so-called “dating app burnout” is to optimise our search for love. AI features are just the apps’ versions of these.
Besides, they’re not really designed for efficiency, are they?
“The main intention of these tools is to increase your retention time, only under the guise of doing something useful and productive,” says Gandini. “They aim to offer users a gamified environment that becomes more appealing than an actual relationship, because an actual relationship brings a number of burdens.” The rise of virtual girlfriends and AI chatbots like Replika similarly speak to this desire for uncomplicated, one-way connections.
What’s more, if the goal of these AI tools is to build trust and reduce the chance of catfishing – as they’re often marketed to do – they may be attempting to solve an unsolvable problem. As well as the fact that, by dating apps’ design, you’re always meeting a stranger, trust is, as Gandini says, “a problem inherent to love… AI is trying to bring a rational dimension to something that’s not necessarily rational.”
That’s not to say there aren’t some upsides. “There’s less of a connection on apps that don’t incorporate AI,” says 31-year-old Kris from Lancashire, who’s currently experimenting with a handful of AI-powered apps. “The tools that match you based on interests and preferences are way more effective in building bonds, as you have something to talk about.”
Kris says he also utilises conversation prompts. He’s also eager to see more ghosting-prevention features, like a message to the ghostee that gently says, as he suggests, “it looks like they’re no longer interested”. Apps like Inner Circle and Hinge have already introduced anti-ghosting features. And yet ghosting still, depressingly, remains rife.
Kat from London, meanwhile, is on board with the idea of photo-selection tools, but questions matchmaking tools, including Hinge’s already-prominent “compatibility” notifications.
“Someone’s opening line to me recently was, ‘Hinge recommended us as compatible, so let’s find out if they’re right’, which was a real mix of human and bot,” she says. “I’d have preferred a more natural opening line. Would he have even reached out if it wasn’t for AI?”
This kind of machine learning is already used on most dating apps to, say, streamline a user’s preferences based on pre-selected features. But this differs wildly to replacing your entire self with a bot – a tool that some will likely never be comfortable adopting.
Even though the jury’s still out on how popular this new generation of AI tools will become, it does feel like we’re at the precipice of a new, uncharted era of dating apps, and one that’s set to be defined by unromantic optimisation. But, instead of viewing this as dystopian, maybe we should welcome the bots, let them take over, and implode the apps from the inside. After all, it’s starting to feel like we’d be better off without them (we’d also never have to see a dating app screenshot ever again).
Our permanently-horny, extremely-efficient AI avatars could just talk to each other instead. You know, as God intended.