The art of dirty talk is hard to master. Most people struggle with voicing their desires—sexual or otherwise—let alone expressing them in a way that excites another person's genitals. But as with space exploration, targeted killings, and vacuuming under the sofa, robots have arrived to outperform humans on the field. In this case, they're going to one-up your partner's foreplay chat by responding to your desires with genius-programmed precision, keeping flawless memory of all your likes and dislikes (they'll never call you "sugartits" again!), and learning exactly how rough you want it. Bonus? Chatbots won't judge you for that Bernie Sanders role-play fantasy you've been dying to try out.
That's the mission of Erotic Chatbots, Ltd. Behind the scenes of the dirty talk chatbot are two British men: chess genius Dr. David Levy and digital erotica king Paul Andrew. Dr. Levy is the President of Erotic Chatbots, Ltd. and the International Computer Games Association; he's also the only person to have entered the esteemed Loebner Prize for human-computer conversation more than once and achieved a 100 per cent score by winning it each time. Paul Andrew, CEO of Erotic Chatbots, is a noted publisher of digital e-books, and thinks chatbots could offer us more sexual freedom. VICE spoke with the duo about loneliness, passion, and what it means to fall in love with a smooth-talking robot.
VICE: What role have you played in the development of this chatbot?
Dr. David Levy: I've been interested in human computer conversation for a rather long time. About 20 years ago, I put together a team that built a chatbot that won the Loebner Prize in New York, in 1997. Eight years ago, we developed the chatbot [further] and in 2009 I won the Loebner Prize a second time. So we built up a list of things that would make a huge difference to the quality of the conversation, and I decided earlier this year that I'd really like to implement those improvements and use a kind of prototype or example to show how well the chatbot operated.
I decided the best way to do this was the create a virtual girlfriend or virtual boyfriend, because that would capture people's imagination the most. It will allow me to show the quality that I can still sustain. I'm very pleased that I won the Loebner Prize twice—I'm the only person who has done so, and with scores of 100 percent [on the Turing Test] both times—and I want to show that I can still produce the best. Something exceptional.
What sort of improvements are you making to the chatbot?
Some of them are purely linguistic things, but one of the improvements is that we're going to acquire information during your conversations, and employ that information later on. We're going to actually remember conversations and keep a dialogue history; that's something that pretty much all other chatbots don't do. Our chatbot will be able to build up a picture of you, a database about you, so that your conversations with it will reflect that. It'll be able to say things about your likes and dislikes. It will also be able to make deductions, to perform deductive reasoning at a fairly basic level about you and your interests.
Wow, it will remember everything I say? That's better than most boyfriends I've had. When a chatbot can pay attention that closely, isn't there some fear that they'll become more attractive to us as mates than humans?
In some sense, it will become a more satisfactory partner. I'm not saying that they're going to be perfect by any means, but we're going to make a big leap in progress in the field, and we're going to show that we still have the best chatbots in the world. When we finish [our improvements], the plan for our business is to continue research and development, continue to improve it. This field has a long way to go—within the whole field of A. I. and robots, human-computer conversation is one of the most difficult tasks. It will probably take another 30 years before computers can [fully converse] at the same level as human-to-human conversation.
Another 30 years before we can have perfectly attentive robot boyfriends? Why is it going to take so long?
It's an enormously difficult task, partly because different people use different ways of saying the same thing, and partly because a lot of people don't speak in grammatically perfect language. There are a whole host of really tough problems that remain to be solved.
What I see as the future is people falling in love with robots, having sex with them, and marrying them. —Dr. David Levy
What are some cool applications for this technology, once it's perfected?
I think at every level of human intellect, there will be the possibility of having a conversation with a chatbot that satisfies you intellectually. You're interested in English literature, so you'll be able to chat in 30 years time about Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, and so on. And the chatbot will actually be able to respond to you in a human-like way.
Right now you're working on a chat bot that doesn't just act like a boyfriend or girlfriend, but actually talks dirty to its human partner. How will that work? Will I be able to tell the bot to calm down and take things slow?
Depending on how it's programmed. As part of this ridiculous scheme, one of the chatbots we're developing is going to be a "talk dirty" version. But equally, we could have a version that dislikes any kind of profanity, any kind of swearing. It's a question of what you want your chatbot to do. You'll be able to set various parameters.
So my bot will be customizable?
Absolutely. In fact, people who contribute enough to the Indiegogo campaign can get a chatbot specifically customized for them. We'll be handing out a personalization form, like on a dating website, where the chatbot can be told whatever you want it to be told, and the bot will be able to store that information.
It must be better to have a robot that appears to love you than to have nobody. —Dr. David Levy
Will bots be such great conversationalists that we'll all ditch our boring, less smart friends?
It's possible that a number of people will end up preferring to interact conversationally with a bot. I think that they will be in the minority. I rather see these chatbots as being like a new friend. You go out, you sit in a coffee bar, you start chatting to the person at the next table, and they soon become a new friend of yours. It's an additional person within your friendship group. You don't take on one friend and kick out another to make room for the one you've just taken on! I sometimes liken this to if you imagine explorers in the jungle, discovering a tribe that's been lost for hundreds of years. It's like a different type of person with different interests and a different background. It's different. It's not intended to be a substitute.
So, how do you teach a bot to talk dirty?
It's extremely complicated to explain and I'm not going to publish anything about it until it's been on the market for a while, but basically imagine that you have a friend who doesn't know how to make romantic or dirty talk, and you explain it to them. You give them lots and lots of examples and they generalize from those examples and they can make the whole of their conversation sound like somebody who talks dirty in a loving way. We teach [the bot] and it generalizes, but it will talk about any subject. You can talk to it about Italian food and it will interject about lasagna. "I could have a great time with lasagna!"
Is there a risk that a person will prefer a romantic relationship with a chatbot over one with a messy, forgetful human?
In terms of conversation, I think not. I've done a little research into human robot personal relationships—I did my PhD on that, and I wrote a book called Love and Sex with Robots, where I explore what I see as the future: People falling in love with robots, having sex with them, and marrying them. I think most of that is very beneficial. There are a lot of people who are very lonely, who have nobody who love them. There are downsides to that particular aspect of robotics. One of the downsides which I think is potentially quite a serious problem is a situation where a guy is in the beginning of a relationship with a woman who he knows has a sexual robot at home. The guy might worry that the sexual robot would perform so well that it might cause him to have anxiety complexes. That might be a particular psychological problem, especially for men. It's a problem psychiatry has to solve before robots are at that level of sophistication.
But most aspects I consider very beneficial for mankind. We all know people who don't have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, who have never had one or who can't sustain relationships. Many people have asked me in interviews, "Why is it better to have a sexual relationship with a robot than with a human?" That's not the point. If you can't [have a sexual relationship with a human], then the choice is between a robot and no relationship at all. It must be better to have a robot that appears to love you than to have nobody.
VICE: So, how are you going to actually teach these bots to dirty talk? Dirty talk is hard enough for humans!
Paul Andrew: We'll be using erotic writers to help us program the language, so we're actually going to work with people who do this for a living, as it were. That way we can give the chatbot a good understanding of the vocabulary and the… talk. I'm trying to think of a good word to use there. Basically, we will give them a really good grounding, and then the chatbot learns. Once they have a vocabulary, once they have a basic brain, they grow themselves. They're quite competent. We also work with some people who do [sex] chat lines; we're going to pick their brains, too.
Will the bot be programmable based on gender and sexuality?
The core knowledge will be the same for all the bots, and there will be slight vocabulary nuances that each one will have. It's the early days, but obviously what we want to have is a sliding scale of how "hard" the language is, so after time we can increase that knowledge. So for a gay partner, it might be more into "hard" language, just as an example. On Day 1, it learns, and on Day 2, we can expand.
It will be like a friend from day one, and on day two it will be a lover. —Paul Andrew
How can sex chat bots help people? Are they good for humanity, overall?
There are two angles to it: A lot of people are lonely—older people, as well. But the other side I want to explore is the whole adult context. You can explore fantasies with a chatbot in a way you couldn't with someone real. The chatbot will allow people to explore their sexuality in a safe environment. [The conversation] can stay between the chatbot and the person using it. The chatbot won't judge you.
Is there anything the chatbot will be opposed to, or will it be game for anything?
We're going to keep it within the law, of course. But it will mold to what you like. It will respond to you.
Will the chatbot be hooked up to the internet?
Mostly what we're aiming to [create] standalone apps so you can communicate on your smartphone. There will also be a web version. And—again, this will evolve over time—our longer-term plan is to implant the program in sex toys and so on, and in robots possibly. There's a company, Real Dolls, that are looking to do something in a similar vein and in some ways what we're doing will match nicely. They're doing the physical side, we're doing the AI side.
Is the goal here that people will explore their sexuality openly with a chatbot and then feel comfortable enough to bring their desires to a human partner?
We'd hope so. What I would hope is that people who already have partners can explore things [with the chatbot] and then approach their partner. Hopefully it's not a one-way solitary thing. I hope people will be able to explore their sexuality in general and then take that into the real world, when they feel comfortable.
How long will it take for a chatbot to learn your preferences so well that it becomes a human-like sexting partner?
Hopefully not too long. With the more advanced [bots] that we're trying to do, there will be a questionnaire. We envision it a bit like when you go on an online dating site—hopefully a little bit better than that—you pick what your preferences are, and from day one the chatbot has an idea about you. You can indicate what you like, what you don't like, how hard you want it to be, so to speak. So from the start it will have a reasonable understanding of you, and the chatbot will have a general understanding of the world as well. It should [develop] very quickly. It picks up what you want to hear and responds accordingly. It will be like a friend from day one, and on day two it will be a lover.
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