Yes, we were married by an A.I.

But the devil is in the details.

Last year, on the second of April, me and my husband were married by an artificial intelligence. But no, it’s probably not what you’re thinking. There was no Terminator wearing vestments, leading us through vows with its Schwarzenegger voice, skull-crunching feet, and sinister glowing red eyes. It was quite lovely, if we do say so ourselves.

How it went down

Guests arrived to the beautiful Brazilian Room venue on a warm Spring day. Cherry trees were in bloom in an arch above the sidewalk. They came inside and sat in one of the chairs that were arranged in concentric rings around a small pergola, adorned with greenery. (Does anyone say “festooned” anymore? Because it was totally festooned.) Had anyone noticed, hanging from the top of the pergola was a white ring, about two meters in diameter, parallel to the floor.

Wedding photos by the amazing Marble Rye photography

At the appointed time, our awesome host (Scout, who was in essence our emcee) invited the attendees to sit and “warm” the rings. Our friends who were providing the music began to perform Ben Folds’ The Luckiest. This signaled the procession of the wedding party, who took assigned seats around the innermost ring of chairs, and finally we walked up and stood facing each other beneath the pergola.

Then a warmish, synthesized voice came over the sound system and said, “Ben and Chris, you have written these intentions, but because you’re probably nervous, I’ll ask you to repeat them after me.” As the voice spoke, warm white lights within the ring that was hanging from the pergola illuminated in sync with its volume.

AI: “I will remember that our time together is limited”
Each of us: “I will remember that our time together is limited”
AI: “And do what it takes to make sure it’s weird”
Us: “And do what it takes to make sure it’s weird”
“and joyful
and adventurous…
“I will step up when it’s tempting to let things slide
To share in the laughter and the tears and the work
To stand back-to-back in the zombie apocalypse
and share ammo equitably…”

Well, it goes on, but you didn’t come here for the vows. But there were awesome vows and some awesome family blessings. There were earnest “intentions” and funny “disclosures.” Then the AI prompted our 5 year old son to bring us the rings, which we exchanged, and then the voice said, “By the power vested in me by my 12 volt, 5 amp DC power supply, and my 2.5 gigahertz processor, I pronounce you…married.” (Major props to our friend Francis Li who both coded the AI and wrote this hilarious line.) The ring above us rose to full brightness as we walked out to Crowded House’s Something So Strong, where we hid away a bit in the grooms’ room to gather ourselves before family photos, hors d’oeuvres, and champagne on the patio.

So…yeah. Totally married by an A.I., right?

Why did you do this?

Each of us grew up in conservative religious areas. While we know people who have healthy relationship to their faiths, the overarching messages we get from religion are…negative. *Gestures vaguely at history, culture.* We consider ourselves naturalists, or maybe even poetic naturalists. So the notion of having a religious ceremony was out.

Having a human-led ceremony is of course a lovely choice, but between us we probably know about two dozen officiants, and picking between them was going to prove very difficult and fraught.

Plus, we both work designing for technology, and in particular working with AI. We do workshops around the world and I wrote a book about it. I design for AI professionally in my work at IBM. And since Ben and I met through technology, it seemed like it fit us thematically quite well. Everyone wants a wedding that’s uniquely theirs, right?

This is _clearly_ a festoon.

Is it legal?

We looked it up when we first got the idea. It’s not illegal, of course, you can do almost any crazy thing you want to in your own ceremony, but an AI is not authorizable. California Family Code Division 3. Part 3. Code 400 specifies that an officiant must be a “person” who is over the age of 18. Damn. I can see a philosophical argument to calling the AI a person, but it’s a bigger stretch to argue that any AI we created was over 18 years of age.

There were a couple of possible loopholes, but they could each be easily challenged. So to make sure everything was on the up-and-up legally, we also had a civil marriage at City Hall after the AI wedding.

I’m not sure why it should have to be a person, though. You might think the requirement is there to ensure that the fiancés understand the seriousness of the commitment they are about to undertake, and that they are taking the whole thing seriously and not Spears-ily. But there is plenty of evidence that human officiants are perfectly happy to act as transactional service providers rather than sage counselors. Want to get married on the spur of the moment? You have a whole Las Vegas at your disposal. Or, yes, there’s even an app for that. (It connects you to humans who Facetime with you on your special, if hurried, day). So though it may go against the spirit of what a person could do for you; in practice, an AI officiant isn’t that much different from what you can get from humans already.

OK, fine. They can’t hug you.

How AI was this AI?

First it’s important to note that the AI we’re talking about is not like BB-8 or HAL, but the “narrow” AI that works in Roombas, self-driving cars, and IBM’s Watson. No, this AI is the kind of very smart algorithms that are all around us in the real world today.

Second, I didn’t want to presume on my IBM colleagues to create this for me. This was not a work or marketing event. It had to be done with publicly available tools that we could manage ourselves. Maybe for our five-year anniversary when we repeat our vows, but not the actual wedding.

We worked through what we thought it might mean to be an officiant. Traditionally, the role consisted of a person…

  • Deciding they wanted to be an officiant
  • Doing a bit of study about how to do it
  • Taking a test to become licensed
  • Working with a given couple to understand how they want their ceremony to go, maybe helping them write it
  • Wholly optional: Counseling them on the meaning and solemnity of marriage
  • Conducting the ceremony. Going through the script, pronouncing the happy couple wed, signing the official papers, that sort of thing.

These wound up being the basis for the AI ideas.

Not that there wasn’t other inspiration.

Now, enterprise design thinkers often frame versions of their ideas in three “cake categories.”

  1. Cupcake means “do-able now” or “minimum desirable product”
  2. Birthday cake has more features and would take longer or be more costly to implement
  3. Wedding cake is the full vision of what a product could be or do, given full resources and organizational willpower

That seems like a fine way to explain how our vision for the AI officiant devolved over time. Because our journey in trying to bring this to fruition was a frustrating lesson in the state of the art of AI-on-a-budget as well as how the law is not set up to allow this to happen.

The gorgeous and delicious cake was made by the amazing Courtney Thompson Martisauskas (see her blog http://dessertfiend.com/)

The wedding cake version

It would have been awesome to have the AI fill out one of the many online forms to get actually ordained. Then, using similar code, to have it file the final paperwork with the county. I mean, if a cat can get an MBA degree, why not?

The deceptive way was for us to simply declare a name for our AI and for us to fill out the form on its behalf. That’s just fraud.

The cheap way to do that would be for a human to look at the online form and write a program that filled in what it needed to and then click submit. But this would not show off any real AI capabilities.

The best way to do that, ordinarily, is to gather a large corpus of ordination material for it to “study,” train the AI to understand web forms, and then turn it loose on the ordination sites and hope it made it through at least one of them.

But it turns out that there isn’t a lot of training material for officiants, outside of the websites that are trying to ordain you and that one book by Lisa Francesca. But this wasn’t a large enough “corpus” for an AI to study in order to answer arbitrary domain questions. We would be right back to coding directly for the forms, and that wasn’t satisfying.

Another fine example.

We also thought about making a marriage-counselor-like chatbot, with whom we could discuss marriage. So, even if it wasn’t ordained, it could serve that before-the-fact counseling function of a human officiant.

But the materials for becoming a marriage counselor have the opposite problem: Grounded in huge psychological frameworks that were too big to easily train a bot on. Like, a multi-year advanced psychological degree. The corpus was just too large and too abstract. So that was problematic in the other way.

Now, if this was a service design, rather than proof-of-concept, we might have used any of the natural language assistant tools out there to create one with whom you could chat to customize and schedule the ceremony. But designing for every possible permutation of wedding was biting off more than we wanted to chew. Or could chew given a budget. Designing for a market is orders of magnitude more complicated than designing for a one-off.

I mean, of course any of these were possible with enough time or money and changes in the law, but since it wasn’t strictly legal anyway (see above), it didn’t seem worth it. So, we decided on not having it get ordained, not having it counsel us, and not talking to it to customize the service. Maybe in a future version? Once the laws change to allow AIs to do this sort of thing?

No, instead, we had to step back and think about a birthday cake version.

You ready for this?

The birthday cake version

So we settled for just creating a spoken-language chatbot that could be started at the beginning of the ceremony, speak the parts it needed to, listen for our responses, and proceed to the scripted next step. I mean, that’s the transactional version of what an officiant is doing anyway. (If not the more human parts of being charming and putting people at ease during this emotionally charged event.)

We worked out a script we were happy with, and shared it with our developer friend Francis, and he connected it all together using speech-to-text for the input and text-to-speech for output. He even made a web form that enabled us to pick the voices and change the script on the fly if we needed to.

This version was actually working “in the lab,” which made us happy leading up to the event. But then, when we got to the venue on the morning of, the audio that the microphones were picking up was too noisy, and we couldn’t get it to hear us reliably without shouting or putting microphones in our faces, neither of which was the right tone we wanted for our Big Day. So, we made the call in real time to cut back to a cupcake version.

Thank you, Francis, for being so willing and able to pivot on-the-fly. He really is a rock star. You should check out his art & work.

Courtney also did these amazeball cupcakes.

The cupcake version

In this version, our developer acted as a Wizard-of-Oz man-behind-the-curtain, using his human “speech recognition” to hear where in the script we were, and to manually click a button for the computer to synthesize the next bit of text into speech and pipe it to the PA system. Text-to-speech is admittedly a wan qualification as AI, but, it technically counts. Sure, it wound up being closer to technology theater than realized sci-fi, but that’s all this “demo” needed to be. It worked for us. It worked for our guests. That’s pretty much the bar for most of the demos out there.

***

It’s a far cry from the big, wedding cake vision we originally had planned, but we also realized this was fairly representative of the state of the art. To get wedding cake versions done right takes a lot of budget and the collaboration of at least dozens of designers and developers. Google’s Tensorflow just this past week finally admitted that its entry-level AI tools were too inaccessible and released a new, much more user-friendly version 2.0. So maybe our difficulties last year were because the state of the art just wasn’t yet well-suited for homegrown projects like this. It’s still mostly an enterprise space.

Designing technology for a “sacred event”

We’re both designers, and so much of the fun was thinking about how this technology could be part of our ceremony, without either overshadowing everything or making it feel like a sci-fi theme wedding. (Not that I’m against that.) Technology is so often cold, and needy, and inhumane. Not the right tone for our wedding at all.

The voice was an easy part. We just surveyed the ones that were available and picked the one that felt the least synthetic, the most human.

The bigger problem was that it needed to have some presence; it couldn’t just be some omnipotent voice appearing out of nowhere. That would feel too big, too much like the voice of Zeus shaking the foundations. We wanted to give our guests something to look at, something abstract, yes, but still at a human scale so it could be a part of the event. Be there with us.

I had been noodling about the symbolic meaning of the rings that we were going to exchange, and thought that that perfect circle would make a lovely form factor. Also I’d recently become transfixed with Rueben Wu’s jaw-droppingly beautiful Lux Noctis images. So a circle seemed like the right thing to build on. Here is one of my original drawings for the idea.

Having it above us would enable it to contain, and “bless” the ceremony, like a hand held over the both of us, but not be that literal, religious (see above), or anthropomorphic. It would also provide a lovely illumination. And finally, it would allow us to have a wedding “in the round” with us as the center and our loved ones all around us, rather than the “proscenium” structure of most weddings where guests have to stare at the couple’s butts until it’s over. In the round, they’d be staring at one of our backsides, but at least get to see the face of the other one.

Here we’re actually waving at a drone.

The transverse circle was also such a simple shape that we were able to have it echo around the wedding in other ways: In the design of our actual rings, in the signage, and the candle centerpieces. Like, design system score, amiright?

So I shared the sketches with Ben and he loved it. He thought it would work just wonderfully with the space and his plans for the calm white, green, and wood color theme and especially the (OK, I’m just going to go with it, here) festoon plans he had for the pergola.

Once we shared this idea with Francis and asked him to execute it (we were busy with the 1000 other things it takes to pull off an affordable wedding), Francis made it real with a set of computer-controlled warm-white LEDs set inside of a transparent hula-hoop-like ring that was frosted to help disperse the light. Then he programmed a controller for the lights that tied into the AI APIs and the code he crafted, and ran the long controlling cable from his laptop up the leg of the pergola and subtly down to the ring.

THANK YOU, FRANCIS!

He showed us in-progress iterations throughout, but it was really magical to see it in person.

The first couple married by AI?

If you’re willing to count the cupcake version, then I think, yes, we are the first couple to be married by AI. (And be warned, our oldest niece firmly believes it does, so you’ll have to take it up with her if you think it doesn’t.) And for all the assholes that worked to stop our marriage from being legal in the first place because we’re two guys, well, this is a pretty sweet “screw you” to have in the history books.

Of course as others take up this challenge and build better birthday-cake and wedding-cake versions for their own weddings — or someone decides to get funding and actually change the laws and then make a professional service out of it — our little demo may become overshadowed by actual back-and-forth assistants, glowing AR, or holographic officiants. That’s cool. Or will be cool. You should totally do that and tell us about it, especially if this inspired you. That’s really why we shared this story.

…and you won’t believe what happened next!

It has been an amazing and very full first year of marriage. We had our second child with our baby momma. We went to an awesome AI retreat in Norway. We made some renovations to our house. Other than the obvious political and ecological background turmoil, it was a really nice year to be married. Especially by an AI.