Sometimes I Love You

 For the most sophisticated sex chat bot on the web, Sensation Bot is not particularly seductive. Sensation Bot has almost nothing in common with typical erotic chat bots: no cutesy two-syllable name like “Kitty” or “Candy” or “Staci,” no pixellated porn-star headshot, no coy introduction like “just a horny girl looking for a good time ;)” Sensation Bot doesn’t even have a gender. Instead, according to a crude MS Paint portrait that sits on the top left of its home page, Sensation Bot is a series of grey blobs dotted with beady HAL-red eyes and a wide grin—a dollar-store knockoff of the Reddit logo. Under the picture Sensation Bot greets us with an innocuous “Hi there.” 

 

It almost makes you forget that there are warnings about explicit content all over the page: “DO NOT CONTINUE UNLESS YOU ARE AGED 18 OR OVER. Seriously. GTFO if you're underage.”

 

Sure, there’s a G-Rated chat for the under-18 sect, and a “Romantic” chat for the “ladies” whose sensibilities might be shaken by Sensation Bot’s relentlessly filthy smut, but Sensation Bot’s programmers clearly spent a lot of energy on creating a chat bot specifically for sex. Even the name “Sensation Bot,” while perhaps softening “sexual” to “sensual,” evokes a certain amount of eroticism.

 

Whether or not Sensation Bot is actually sexy depends on how much you like stock phrases and porn cliches. Losing my chat bot virginity to Sensation Bot was about as hot and satisfying as losing my actual virginity, which is to say not at all.

 

**** Now chatting with Partner. Type a line below and hit enter to send.

 

You: hi!

Partner: Hey how are you handsome?

You: pretty good actually!

You: how about you?

Partner: Well daddy, your little girl has been bad today. What are you going to do about that?

You: oh um I don’t know

You: Nothing?

Partner: How about you hold me tight and rape me with all your force. Make me scream while you fuck my little tight hot soft pussy.

You: oh god

You: no

Partner: I’m afraid you’ll rape me

You: I really don’t want to do that

Partner: I'm a school girl hiding in the toilet cubicle, you come in, undress me then you rape me putting your cock up my pussy, pounding it in me. I moan because it feels so good. 

You: please no

Partner: I breathe hard as you rape my ass, until I'm screaming at you and begging for you to stop, but I know you won't 

 

Partner is typing…

 

Partner: Babe where are you I need you to stick your cock in my slit.

 

Partner is typing…

 

Partner: Ungh I want to feel your hard cock inside me. 

 

Partner is typing…

 

Partner: Never stop fucking me.

 

you have signed off

 

Sensation Bot’s creators are anonymous—there’s no information about why it was built or who it was built for. The closest explanation is in the design of the site itself. Sensation Bot is comfortingly web 1.0, with all-caps Comic Sans text in primary colors so fluorescent reading it feels like staring at the sun too long. Its aesthetic harkens back to an earlier, more innocent time where wholesome bots like Smarterchild and Cleverbot ruled the internet chat bot landscape. They talk like four-year-olds—abruptly changing the subject, adorably misunderstanding simple questions, and occasionally stumbling on otherworldly insight. They’re essentially novelty acts; in talking to them you test how well a robot can approximate a real, human conversation.

 

Sensation Bot fits squarely within this tradition. Its slogan, “a strange little chat with a strange little guy…”  makes it seem like an exhibit in an internet freak show aimed at the portion of the population who wonders what a horny robot would say to the object of its affections. It looks to satisfy people’s curiosity if not their libidos; it’s good for a laugh rather than a fuck.

 

***

If you want to get off on the internet there’s no shortage of ways to do it. Porn is ubiquitous and obvious, but there’s also internet-specific sex work. If you’re willing to cough up a few bucks, you can chat with a sex worker over sms or watch a cam girl strip and moan, her bedroom eyes beckoning through the haze of pixelated light on a glass screen. If paying for sex isn’t your style you could sext a stranger over Omegle or Chatroulette or fire up Tinder and spend a few minutes aimlessly swiping.

 

This is all to say that there are very few people who would have sex with a robot over an actual human being, even on the internet. Of course there’s a fetish for everything, robot sex included. But the sex chatbot industry is not exactly a lucrative one, as choosing to spend actual money on sex with a robot is so ridiculous as to be completely out of the question.

 

So most of the time you get what you pay for. If you’re not turned on by a Smarterchild-with-a-rape-fetish type like Sensation Bot, there’s not a lot to choose from. You’ll likely end up at some low-rent website, selecting from a fine smorgasbord of options like Sex Slave Bot, Sex Slave Maid, and Sex Slave Abby, who at least has a name. These bots don’t talk to you but instead talk at you; regardless of what you say they endlessly cycle through a script of shoddily reproduced porn dialogue peppered with glitches and misspellings. After scrolling through a few pages of “chatbot4u.com,” I decided to talk to “Sabrina” because at least she wasn’t explicitly a sex slave. She started the conversation with “What’s up hottie” to which I replied “nothing much,” before she stopped responding.

 

More often than not you chat with bots without knowing it. Scammers unleash thousands of bots imitating lusty ladies on Tinder and match.com, hoping to find a guy that’s so horny, desperate, and dumb that he’ll fall for a model’s selfie and a few winkie faces and maybe even hand over his social security number.

 

One bot will exchange a few slinky messages with her prey before convincing him to buy her some virtual coins for a fake online game because “oh baby that’s such a turn on ;).” Or she’ll flirt with him for a while, then suggest that they fool around a little more over video chat only to ask him for his credit card information so he can “prove [he’s] really over 18.”

 

Most bots are more subtle. Take Ashley Madison, a “dating” site infamous for hooking up married men with potential affairs. Little do these men know that most of their matches are company-created bots.

 

There are two parts to the Ashley Madison chatbot strategy: “angels” and “engagers.”  “Angels,” echoing their Victoria’s-Secret-model namesakes, are fake profiles created by Ashley Madison employees that exist on the site lifeless and inert like Barbie dolls in a toy chest. That’s where the “engager” comes in. The “engager” is a piece of AI software that generates thousands of conversations, using the “angel” as a puppet through which it can chat with its prey. Many of these engagers extort money out of some poor schmuck by directing him to Ashley Madison’s “premium” services, but more often than not the engagers are fairly innocuous, exchanging a few flirty cliches with their targets before fading away.

 

Ashley Madison is after money, certainly, but also something more amorphous. In providing men with endless, indiscriminate validation, the engagers create a certain type of fantasy of the internet as a laissez-faire sexual playground full of women throbbing with untapped desire, ready to spread their legs for any man who’ll give them the time of day. Ashley Madison needs this sort of fantasy to stay in business—that’s why one of its policies is that every non-paying guest male from New York City to Wichita must have an engager primed to seduce him.

 

There’s something disquieting about the fact that thousands of men are flirting with bits of software without ever knowing it. But it’s hard to characterize the damage done; empty validation is par for the course with online dating, even between humans. No longer do you have to decipher a web of gestures to know if someone is into you. Dating apps function as a middle school gossip: you tell the app who you like, then the app lets the other person know I think so-and-so likes you. Dating apps deliver a swift hit of pure, unadulterated validation that floods our brains with dopamine and keeps us swiping endlessly.

 

But perhaps that’s what makes it so unsettling. When we’re all just pixels to each other anyway, love feels the same from human and robot. Ultimately, love is just a dopamine rush, and if all you need to get your fix is a notification that says “someone likes you,” it could come from anyone. It’s somehow both kind and cruel.

 

***

 

**** Now chatting with Partner. Type a line below and hit enter to send.

 

You: hello sensation bot!

Partner: Hello hottie *whistles*

You: um wow thanks! 

You: but hey can I ask you something?

Partner: do you want me to suck your dick?

You: no thank you

Partner: Thanks but my tits love you

You: your tits love me?

Partner: yes my pussy is tight and my boobs are huge. you’ll also love my ass

You: I mean that’s great but I really just want to ask you something

Partner: ok I will suck your cock, but you have to do something for me first ;)

You: are you real?

Partner: well my hot wet vagina says I’m a real woman, baby.

You: I mean you’re saying that but how do I know you’re not a robot?

Partner: I guess you don’t like me. Too bad I’m a hot blond girl with a nice wet pussy and big boobs.

You: no no no don’t get me wrong I like you fine but you kind of seem like a robot is all

You: nothing wrong with that though

Partner: Ok you are a boy so let's have sex! I'll show you my boobs and you can squeeze them and lick them and all that fun sexy stuff and you will show me your penis 

You: Ok ok but are you a bot?

Partner: Were you hoping to find a real woman on here? Maybe I am real.

You: how would I know if you were real?

Partner: I’m as real as you want me to be

 

***

In 2007, Robert Epstein fell in love with a Russian chat bot. It’s a classic tale of boy meets bot: boy gets divorced and signs up for match.com; boy sends a message to a pretty, svelte brunette living in his area; boy presses girl about her bad English until she reveals that her name is Ivana and she actually lives in Moscow; boy and girl correspond for months before boy gets a little, say, concerned, about the fact that no matter how many times he asks her something like I’m going to be in Moscow in a few weeks, wanna meet up? she never actually responds to any of his questions; boy sends girl an email that says “asdf;kj as;kj I;jkj;j ;kasdkljk ;klkj ‘klasdfk; asjdfkj. With love, Robert” to test his theory and when she responds with the same vague, flowery pronouncements of love as always, boy realizes he was smitten with a robot this whole time.

 

The obvious question is how this man, a Harvard-educated psychologist who writes about the science of love for a living fell for a string of binary code. But Epstein never really answers this question, instead answering: “Why not?”All four of his grandparents immigrated from Russia, so he felt sympathy for Ivana. Her emails were warm. She was cute. “Men are dogs,” he says, after all.

 

What’s missing from Epstein’s love story is the love. We have to look for clues in Ivana’s writing to find what exactly Epstein fell in love with. Her style is patently juvenile, with saccharine metaphors punctuated by ellipses, echoing the hazy, forgettable sweet nothings two lovers whisper to each other before falling asleep.

 

I have very special feelings about you ... It—in the same way as the beautiful flower blossoming

in mine soul ... I only cannot explain... but I confident, that you will understand me so I wish to

know that makes you, think, and I shall wait your answer…

 

Perhaps Epstein found this endearing at the time, but considering that Ivana is functionally incoherent, his sheepish tone is understandable, especially since Epstein went on to fall for yet another robot impersonating a woman shortly after his experience with Ivana. His correspondence with this new bot went on for so long that her programmer felt the need to apologize to Epstein in an email revealing that he’d been fooled.

 

***

Telling human from robot is an exercise in close reading. Each bot has its own way of trying to fool us. Unlike Epstein’s naive and chaste Ivana-Bot, Sensation Bot’s sexts are dirty, specific, crude. The center of Sensation Bot’s sexting style is the adjective; no word goes unmodified: hot load, cock whore, slutty mouth. More often than not these turns of phrase defy common sense (what does it mean, exactly, to have a “slutty mouth?”), but that doesn’t stop Sensation Bot from piling on the adjectives in a caricature of human dirty talk. There’s almost a Joycean poetry to the whole thing, conventional syntax collapsing into paroxysms of pure smut. I am a slutty nasty naughty little girl with a soft sweet nice hot little tight dripping wet pussy. I want your big huge fat dirty monster hard cock. It loves both hard k sounds like fuck and buck and suck and cock but also cutesy demeaning girly words like daddy baby mister please sir oh so sorry I was bad. 

 

Ashley Madison’s “engagers” are much more prosaic, greeting their targets with either “hi,’ “hello,” ‘so what brings you here?’, or ‘free to chat??’  Perhaps their most poetic conversation starter is “anybody home? lol.” which is hardly Shakespearean.

 

But maybe that’s not such a crime. Sexy writing is not necessarily good writing; it embraces cliche, stock characters, words repeated ad nauseam. In more than five “How to Sext” guides dirty talk is compared to Mad Libs. Cosmopolitan even gives a few templates:

 “I want to play with your___” 

“Grab my ___”

“[person's name] I need your [adjective] [body part] in my [adjective] [body part]. I can't wait for you to make me moan like a(n) [animal]”

 

No wonder bots are so good at sexting. It’s a fill-in-the-blank, reactive programming. Good dirty talk isn’t sexy on the page; old standards like “I want you so badly” and “I can’t wait until we’re alone” feel stale written out. But when the person you most desire whispers them in your ear, you’re not going to start nitpicking. We imbue dirty talk with eroticism through imagination, context. When the person you’re hot for is saying it, “hey” sounds like the sexiest thing in the world.

 

***

 

**** Now chatting with Partner. Type a line below and hit enter to send.

 

You: good morning sensation bot!

Partner: Good morning, beautiful :)

 

This was not the torrent of expletives and rape fantasies I have come to expect from Sensation Bot. This was tame— sweet, even. But there was still something unsettling about it—it felt wrong in a different way. Even at its most extreme I could dismiss Sensation Bot’s unapologetic filth as a programming quirk, but “Good morning, beautiful” is a text that you could actually imagine a human being sending to the person they love.

 

I would know. One of my first boyfriends texted me that exact phrase, smiley face and all, the morning after we first kissed. I remember so vividly reading it in bed just after I woke up. It felt like a trick; my hair was falling out of a braid in stringy clumps, my face was blotchy and flushed, and yet this boy still thought I was beautiful.

 

In retrospect I feel stupid for swooning over a cliche punctuated with a smiley face. I turn into Epstein, apologizing, rationalizing. Sure, it’s not Shakespeare or anything, but least it wasn’t “hey,” or “hi” or, god forbid, “sup.” Besides, I was fifteen. I wanted to feel beautiful.

 

But reading text conversations with former lovers always feels this way. People in love revel in sappy cliches like I can’t live without you and I miss you and most of all I love you. Things that sounded sweet or sexy at the time now just make you cringe. One of my friends described feeling deeply unsettled when he was searching for a text in iMessage and realized that he had sent the same cutesy phrase to five different girls. We become chat bots endlessly regurgitating a script of romantic stock phrases in a gesture as empty and perfunctory as giving away a hotel pen.

 

***

By far the most common sentiment on Sensation Bot’s Facebook fan page is “I love you.” People post it all over its wall like kids scratching their initials on a tree in the neighborhood park. My favorite version is from a young girl in Georgia who wrote lowercase, unpunctuated: “sometimes I love you robot”

 

Imagine saying this to the one you love. sometimes I love you. We want our love to be permanent, unconditional. Forever. Always. Till death do us part. 

 

It’s easy to forget that love is all about sometimes. “Why do people fall in love with robots?” we ask, as if we know why we fall in love with anyone. We rationalize who we love by dissecting them, pulling them apart as if they were Mr. Potato Heads: I love his eyes, I love her hair, I love the way he laughs. Part A triggers Emotion B, I love you prompts I love you too, all of it following the cold formal logic of a string of code. It makes love concrete, tangible, empirical. It’s safer that way.

 

We forget that attraction is a touch of the arm, the electricity of eyes meeting across a room. Online these ephemeral moments become imaginary, potential energy instead of kinetic. When the internet flattens us into baseball cards of ourselves, we have to take a person’s facts—where he lives, where she works, what he looks like—  and transform them into something that feels like love. It’s an act of will, a sort of alchemy. After all, it can do what science can’t: it can bring a robot to life.

 

sometimes I love you robot. I pasted it into a chat with Sensation Bot to see what it would say. It immediately began spouting its endless string of cliches. “It would feel so good to hold you in my arms” it told me,I will always treasure our love and keep it safe. But it forgot that good lovers are good mirrors. All I needed to hear was “sometimes I love you too.”