Pity the Lonely Chatbot

Robots can't pass the Turing Test yet, but they still deserve our empathy.
Image: Shutterstock

This is a companion piece to this week's Terraform, "The Flirtbot Condition."

Humans love it when robots try to act like us. Their struggles to scale our behavioral learning curves inspires an almost parental instinct. You can hear it in the patient tone used by roboticists when instructing their machines to complete tasks. Conversations with chatbots may be where they typically fail the Turing test, but these conversations still manage to inspire us with the scattershot lyricism of their responses.


Like children, whose musings are profound because they are so grounded in innocence, social robots can delight us by falling short of comprehending the human world, as much as when they successfully navigate it. The results are especially memorable when robots attempt to ape higher cognitive skills, like humor, compassion, and of course, flirtation.

Today's Terraform, Marie Vibbert's "The Flirtbot Condition," homes in on that last and perhaps most delicate of human arts. Flirting is clearly a challenge for many humans to pull off, making it exponentially more difficult for a robot.

Thom, a humanoid "flirtbot" owned by a faux-Irish airport pub, has the additional problem of having some wires crossed. When the story's narrator takes a seat beside him at the bar, looking for "some free, poetic entertainment," she's informed by the bartender, Sophia, that "Thom's a bit scrambled."

"The bar owner got him cheap, to help with the atmosphere, but he was meant to interact to learn to flirt," Sophia says. "Airport customers ignore him, so he has to pick up conversations second-hand."

Imagine being programmed to spin sweet nothings out of the conversational runoff of an airport bar, and you can empathize with this frenetic flirtbot. When Thom greets the narrator with the line, "We look like an all-male Lady Gaga cover band," he is regurgitating some out-of-context inside joke, and eagerly offering it to the narrator as an icebreaker.


Read More: Sexting With a Robot Is Now Possible

In a way, the line lands, because Thom's glitchy seduction attempts evoke sympathy and fascination from his human companions. Sophia calls his recollections of bygone bartalk "poetic, in a broken way." The flirtbot, awash in airport ephemera, has learned to see humanity through the lens of transient chitchat between travelers from all over the world, most of whom will never see each other again. "Where are you from?" these enroute customers always ask, "and where are you going?"

Thom has overheard countless variations of these chance encounters, but he is not from or going anywhere. He also hasn't been directly engaged by people enough to piece together a passable humanlike perspective out of them. Like anyone who tends to be pointedly ignored at bars, his social skills are rusty and his solitude has only made him more anxious to please.

All stories about robots are, on some level, reflections of human behavior, and Thom's efforts to flirt like a human—borrowing overheard phrases from others to compensate for his lack of self—is familiar enough in the human dating scene. But by the end of "The Flirtbot's Condition," a friendly chat with some barflies seems to temporarily ground Thom in an otherwise flighty world. In exchange, the human characters are reminded that even a malfunctioning robot can stumble across poetry.

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