Using AI to Swipe Right

The future of dating is here, and it kind of sucks.

It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday night. My phone dings — I have a message from OkCupid. I open it and see: “have u ever thought to be part orgy?”

I ignore it.

A few minutes later my phone dings again. It’s the same person, following up with a witty “eh?” Normally I ignore these interactions (frankly, I ignore everyone I’m not interested in), but for some reason tonight I’m frustrated and angry. I’ve just been on yet another date with a nice guy I had no interest in, and the endless process is wearing me down. I pick up the phone and tell him off.

From there he calls me a grandma, tells me he’s into grandmas, and then offers me $4500 to be part of a gangbang. It all started out almost funny (I shared the conversation with my friends and pretended I was laughing), but by the end I’m wondering if online dating is worth it.

I wonder if I’m desperate — not to find someone, but to find a better way to find them.

Five men in their mid 20s sit at a bar. There’s a girl nearby in a brown pencil skirt, nursing a glass of white wine. Occasionally she glances over her shoulder, hoping to catch their eye. She’s hoping in vain: they’re all staring at their phones, trying to get a date on Tinder.

It was a scene much like this that inspired Vancouver entrepreneur and artificial intelligence engineer Justin Long’s newest creation. Bernie is a personal digital assistant whose current task involves swiping left and right — so you don’t have to.

I meet Justin at a trendy coffee shop in downtown Vancouver. As we stand in line waiting for our tea, we fall into a joking conversation about how badly designed teapots are. They only have one purpose, and yet they don’t work very well. “Just because they’ve been around for a thousand years,” he says, “we don’t think to innovate things.”

He’s referring to teapots, but the comment is an excellent diving board for the conversation we’re about to have. Dating, after all, is an industry that struggles with innovation — there’s no magic formula that can predict whether or not you’re going to be attracted to someone. But according to Long, there are algorithms that can get you a lot closer. “Personally, I tried online dating and I really disliked it. I said: this is crazy. I’m just going to automate it.”

Bernie, an artificial intelligence, is the product of that automation.

Bernie’s algorithm is based on the work of psychologists like Leslie Zebrowitz, who believe that physical characteristics can be indicators of personality. Users select images of people they find attractive, and the artificial intelligence analyzes those photographs based on micro-expressions that are predictors of personality — for instance, people with higher levels of testosterone have wider faces with larger cheekbones, and they’re more likely to have more assertive personalities.

Next Bernie has to talk to potential mates, and it does that using natural language processing. According to Long, the introductions on dating sites that get the most positive replies are ones that empathize with elements in someone’s bio or profile images. So Bernie identifies activities in someone’s profile images that it can tailor a response to. If a user has two photos of herself in the forest, Bernie can start a conversation with, “Hey, you’re a tree hugger too?”

Once launching a conversation, the AI can’t necessarily carry it on for very long. Bernie keeps these interactions short enough that it can (hopefully) pass the Turing test, then either decides it’s a bad match and moves on, or quickly turns the conversation over to the human user.

Ideally, the person on the other end never knows he’s chatting with a bot.

I asked my friends what they would think if they discovered the person they were getting to know was actually a robot. The response was horror, across the board. While it’s technically no different than relying on something like OkCupid’s match percentage, which also uses algorithms to connect people based on answers to questions, Bernie feels different. I bring up the “squick” factor with Long, whose response is intriguing. “He pretends to be you. We treat Bernie as an extension of yourself.”

Justin Long poses next to Bernie’s “brain” — the servers where he lives.

The motto of is ‘bringing people back to the human experience.’ “You have people like Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking saying AI will destroy the world. I don’t believe that,” Long says. “I think if you’re smarter about it, and you build the right tools, AI will be your companion — a symbiotic relationship.”

Since there’s no better way to understand a product than to actually use it, I decide to throw Bernie right off the deep end — and give him temporary control over my own dating life.

So far, Bernie only operates on Tinder and Happn. I’ve avoided both of those apps in the past — Tinder because it’s more of a hook-up app than a dating app, and Happn because it’s incredibly creepy. Of the two, I choose to download and create a Tinder account.

I’m using a beta version of Bernie, which means the more sophisticated version of its sorting algorithm hasn’t yet been integrated (it can’t respond to visual clues in photos, and it’s not as good at understanding what I like in faces), and it still has some bugs. It’s all part of the process, so I’m ready for it as I toggle the AI to its highest “pickiness” scale and turn on introductions and swiping. If introductions were turned off Bernie would swipe for me but not start conversations, which is the mode recommended for women. Since 62 percent of users on dating apps are men, and men swipe right three times as often, it’s already easier for women to find matches. But I want to see what Bernie’s conversational skills are like, and I figure with the pickiness set that high, I’ll be fine.

It is immediately apparent that I am not, in fact, fine. Bernie employs the approach that he should like as many people as possible given the parameters you’ve trained him in, presumably because the percentage chance of matching with someone is low, and the chance of the conversation he starts getting a reply is even lower.

If you’re a guy. Maybe.

Before I activated Bernie, I had to train Tinder. I swiped right on about 40 people; I matched with 10 of those, only one of whom actually messaged me (and it was a Friday night). After I turn Bernie on, I match with 204 men in three days. A bug stops him from messaging them — thankfully, because the 51 messages I receive from Bernie’s picks are so overwhelming I don’t even try to answer them. For some, I look at the picture and know immediately I’m not interested, but that’s the kind of thing Bernie will get a lot better at before its public release.

The bigger and more interesting problem is the ones I have a hard time explaining why I don’t like. One guy seems normal, and he’s got some nice profile pictures. Cute. Then there’s the picture of him putting an entire live fish into his mouth. That’s a flag I would have known enough to swipe left on, but how could I explain it to an AI?

Then there’s the guy who’s really excited about moving out of home. Because he’s 22. As a woman in her 30s who has a stable job and lives alone, men who’ve just moved out of the house aren’t my usual dating pool.

(So many exclamation marks.)

Then we get the low-hanging fruit. The muppet (an actual muppet) and the guy who said I must write ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’-style erotica.


Earlier this year, a bug in Bernie’s programming caused him to match a user with 600 people in 1 day. He’s come a long way since then — if Bernie’s conversation filter had been working (and it will be by the time it opens up to the public), it would have saved me from having to read messages like these. But the question of how many people you actually want to match with is an interesting one. Is it a numbers game? Or is there something to be said for having the patience to match and converse with one person before rejecting them and moving on to your next option?

What Bernie brings to the table is impressive. Automating the swiping process means I don’t have to deal with sending messages to cute guys who never answer, or spend hours swiping left before I find one I like enough to swipe right on. But Bernie raises some larger questions about online dating. Does it even work? Are we creating newer and better glasses, when what we should be inventing is contact lenses?

My biggest problem with online dating isn’t finding matches. It’s finding someone I’m really excited about — an excitement that will translate to the offline world. As impressive as it is, Bernie can’t help me there.

In the next 18 months, Long hopes to adapt Bernie’s neural network and natural language processing to turn him into a full personal assistant. He’ll be able to book you a flight, or answer your question about the wing speed velocity of the African swallow. But for now, Bernie’s just trying to find your soulmate — a Herculean task on the best of days.

I’ve decided to delete OkCupid (and Tinder, but that decision was easy). Attraction isn’t about numbers on a page — it can’t be solved with math. Whether or not I have feelings for someone is visceral. It’s inexplicable. No matching algorithm will ever be able to figure that out for me. Maybe I’ll just learn how to make a soufflé, or go hike the Grand Canyon on New Year’s Day.

My phone dings — I have a message. I scan his profile, my smile growing wider as I take in more details. I know I shouldn’t get excited; chances are we won’t end up having chemistry, and it will be just another wasted evening that could have been better spent learning to play the guitar.

But I’m still smiling as I type my response.

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by Wren Handman

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