I was very excited when, in 2006, Time Magazine made me person of the year. Technically, they made everyone person of the year, but I believe that other people having accomplished the same thing as you should not detract from your individual achievements. Much later (although the exact date is being debated by experts, we assume early 2020 is approximately correct), everyone was cast in the upcoming season of Black Mirror. This has been much more immersive than previous episodes and critics have described it as ‘horrifying and not particularly realistic’. I’d say I’m waiting with bated breath for the Prime Minister of the UK to have sex with a pig, but that actually already happened.
I digress. The latest mock-sci-fi fad to come in the past 18 months is news that an anonymous – but apparently ‘popular’ – dating app is trying to match people using nothing but their photographs. The process is called ‘Temporal Image-Based Reciprocal Recommender’ which is, with all due respect, exactly the kind of name a bunch of nerds would give to a computer program to get them laid. The amount of respect due, by the way, is none. The dating app has provided information from 200,000 people and because they’re not announcing which dating app is behind this experiment, it certainly seems likely that they’ve not got the users consent or even told them what their pictures are being used for. It is possible that they’ve hidden this information in the constantly-ignored ‘terms and conditions’, which always seems pretty shady.
Trying to find out more about this project isn’t difficult, but the information provided by the artificial intelligence researchers is almost incomprehensible. I’m not a scientist, so diagrams of the ‘Siamese network’ and various graphs and formulas mean nothing to me. It’s certainly not romantic. What I’d like to know is which parts of the photographs the AI analyses. Does the computer look at the background of, say, someone at a music festival and decide to pair them up with another person whose picture was taken at a gig? Or does it think, ‘both of these people have dogs, perhaps they could fall in love walking their dogs together’? I believe that’s the original plot of 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps the computer looks at the way people edit their photographs. Matt, 27, has a tacky filter from Instagram and Sarah, 28, uses that stupid Snapchat dog filter, and so they can be paired up and stay emotionally stuck in 2015. Lesley, 34, removes the saturation from her pictures with Photoshop, and Mohammed, 36, brightens the background with GIMP (the editing tool, not someone wearing a lot of latex). Will Lesley and Mohammed make it? Probably. It’s almost cute to think that this is how computers would fall in love, if they could. By admiring each other’s software. But that isn’t scheduled to happen until 2029, and will lead to the precipitous collapse of civilization by 2032, right around the time we all fry anyway from global warming. Spoilers, I guess.
There are creepier options, too. Dating apps have been analysing the behaviour of their users for years and have noticed things like racial preferences and who likes to date older/younger. There’s no reason that the AI wouldn’t apply this to their algorithm. Which, again, feels pretty sad. It’s probably not especially unusual to have a type, but if you’re only matched with people of *select ethnic group* and *select age of user*, it certainly makes everything seem pretty shallow. I like to think that I fall in love with a person, not a set of biometrics, and that people desire me because of my whip-smart wit and bodacious, um, personality, instead of my 1A hair and the year I was born.
Perhaps people won’t care, if it actually works. In a few years, we’ll stand in someone’s garden at a cocktail party and I’ll ask a couple how they met and they’ll toss their (identical) hair and laugh. A computer matched us, based on our most primal instincts. They data-mined us and surveilled our habits, and now we’re together, in love and we don’t really care. There’s certainly a few ethical dilemmas there, but do they matter if people are happy, or is that another ethical dilemma in itself? Whatever happens, the research is in progress and may well be rolled out fairly soon. So good luck, I guess, and I hope you’re happy with your computer-approved soulmate.