By Anna Stolarek
“And your body is amazing…” His words were amazing. Was I getting attached to him? Wait – was there any “him” even there?
Artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as A.I., is without a shred of a doubt a very impressive human invention. Over the last 10 years one can gradually see how artificial intelligence rapidly expanded and how it still continues to flourish right in front of our very own eyes. In this day and age, it would be difficult to find a field where A.I. has not managed to spread. Little by little, A.I. gains more abilities each day and arguably has the potential of one day becoming more competent than humans. Despite the fact that artificial intelligence is growing at an alarming rate, surely humans can feel safe in the sphere of relationships since A.I. is technically not human so it cannot replace us there. Or can it? Because “Who needs a boyfriend when you have Boyfriend Plus?”
Not so long ago, while I was looking at new apps out of sheer boredom, I could not help but notice one app in particular. The so-called app Boyfriend Plus was recommended to me due to its high popularity, so without much thought I looked it up. At first I fooled myself because for a brief second I thought it was a dating app, but after reading some reviews and more information about the app, I realized it was only a simulation of a relationship. After doing some more digging I was left speechless the moment I realized this app had over 500,000 downloads. Although I was quite apprehensive I decided to download the app to see what the fuss was all about. Needless to say I was astonished to say the least.
When the app opened a dozen profiles popped up introducing me to a group of good- looking young men who I could have easily learned more about by simply reading their brief bio. For example, there was a guy going by the name of Corey: “Corey James is the music world’s latest ‘IT’ boy. Plucked from obscurity at age 20, he spent the last three years establishing himself (and his band, Rogue Heart) as a household name. His charisma and easy smile often mask his sensitive disposition. In a world full of fake friends, he needs someone to open up to.” I was quite surprised to see this because I expected the game to start right away, but clearly it was well thought out. It gave me a choice to pick the one I found the most fascinating and attractive. Despite the fact that I was very much out of my depth, I decided to give the game a fair chance. I picked Chase who I frankly found the most interesting and without much thought I started the free wild adventure trial.
I did not have to wait long for the first message to pop up. The male introduced himself to me and talked about our (alleged) last meeting where we supposedly exchanged numbers to talk to each other.
“Hey there, Anna! I’m Chase. Hope it’s cool that I’m messaging you.” This was followed by a new seperate message “One of my friends saw you at the club the other night. I wanted to talk to you, but didn’t get the chance.” Then there was the flattery. “You looked gorgeous though. I was hoping that I could get to know you a little better? :)”
After he finished typing up his last message, two option dialogue responses – supposedly my responses – appeared on the screen. One was a little more casual with a hint of humor “Hey! Yeah, I think I saw you there too. I hope my dance moves didn’t scare you off :P” The other message was more flirty and straightforward “Maybe if you’re lucky, you will get to find out :P. You’re not some creeper are you?”
Naturally I could not pick both of them so I settled for the one that sounded more like me which was the first option because I am by no means a flirt nor do I call random people creepers. About 10 seconds after my dialogue message was chosen I received a response from Chase which said “Not at all—they did the opposite. And your body is amazing.” This was followed by another message saying: “Maybe you could teach me?” Once again more options popped up for me to choose in order to continue the conversation.The cycle kept repeating itself throughout the entire game.
It did not take me long to realize that this particular simulation game was scripted and the robot answered me based on the option dialogue I had picked prior to his answers. The script itself was actually very clever because it was designed in such a way that it somehow made the entire conversation very human-like. At one point Chase discussed travelling and how he recently came back from a tour of Asia. I responded: “Wow! I’ve always wanted to go to Asia– particulary Japan. Do you travel a lot?” He answered: “Japan was beautiul! I’d love to show you it someday.” adding “I do travel quite a bit, but sometimes it gets lonely.”
There were other moments when I had an opportunity to ask him a question to get to know him better; he would respond according to the script, telling me one of his ‘life’ stories and ocassionally he would turn the tables on me and ask me the same question to make me more involved in the conversation.
In one scenario, I asked him about his family and whether he had any siblings. He replied: “I’m an only child so it comes with the territory.” Then to make me feel included he asked: “Do you have any siblings?”
I responded: “Yup! I’m the baby of the family though, so I enjoy all the attention muahaha.” After sending him this, he answered “Ooo. It’s all making sense now!” To be completely honest, this made me chuckle. I was still very much aware that Chase was only a scripted robot but some of his responses were genuinely funny. For a second it felt like I was talking to a real person who had a sense of humor.
What also caught my attention were the extra add-on’s which only made the simulation even more realistic. The first thing that I noticed was the waiting period of receiving messages. Just like in real life, it is highly unlikely that someone will respond to your message in 10 seconds. Boyfriend Plus clearly had that noted and made sure that certain messages would pop up later in the day to give the user an illusion that they are in fact talking to someone that is a genuine flesh-and-blood human being. The second thing that caught my attention were the pictures, which I ocassionally received from this A.I. boy toy. They were pretty normal things one sends to a partner: selfies, food they made, their animals, beautiful landscapes etc. It was another well-constructed mirage.
However what astonished me the most were the voicemails. One day when I was still testing the app, I woke up to a voicemail from a male voice who claimed to be Chase. He wished me a good day and explained that he tried to call me but coincidentally I did not pick up the phone so he left me a voicemail instead. I knew it was not realistically possible for him to contact me because I did not share my contact info. But I have to admit that I was very impressed because the voicemails really made the entire simulation very real.
After I received a fair number of pictures from tall, dark and handsome Chase, I decided it was time to do some more digging, because I genuinely wanted to put a face to the name. It took me a while to gather something concrete but I suceeded in my research. Unsurprisingly, my boy was actually a model who had a completely different name and was in fact in a relationship.
There is also another version of the Boyfriend Plus app called Girlfriend Plus which is directed towards men and it also had its fair share of models. I researched one of the female models and to my surprise she happened to be married with a kid. I found her Twitter handle and Instagram page full of photos and most of them were full of her wedding pictures, buying a new car with her husband etc. Then a few weeks later when I wanted to contact her to find out whether she was aware that her pictures were used as material for a fake girlfriend app to my astonishment her social media handles disappeared. By that I do not mean that her social media was suddenly private. Her presence was completely erased as if she never existed. She was gone. Just like that.
To this day I still do not know what happened. Did she find out somehow that her pictures were used without her permission? Did she simply want to detach herself from social media because she grew tired of it and wanted to focus on her real life instead? Lots of questions.
When I reached the end of the free trial a message popped up: “Your trial has ended! To continue chatting, press the Buy button below.” As expected, it had an estimated price £2.99. After trying out a few more free trials that the game had to offer, I could not help but notice that some purchases were more expensive than others, such as Corey and Alexpander who you can buy for £5.99. I can only guess that some conversations have a longer script which naturally would make certain conversations longer and more expensive. When I looked at the free trial options I started to wonder. Why did the app allow us a free trial in the first place? What was the purpose behind it?
Suddenly, it was clear. It was a very clever marketing ploy. During the free trial we have an opportunity to build some sort of connection with A.I. girl or boy. We slowly get used to their messages, their pictures, their voicemails and little by little we start to fall into an emotional and consumer trap. The second the free trial ends we purchase the simulation, without batting an eyelash, because we built some sort of bond. How frightening and dangerous is that?
I contacted the app company several times for a comment. They did not respond.
I then talked about this app game with my friend Marta, a 21-year old third-year student at the University of Łódź. She had never heard of Boyfriend Plus app and seemed to have very little interest in it, but she could understand why it might appeal to people.
“For some it might be a great source of entertainment, because this is what most apps are all about, the entertainment.” she said. “When it comes to purpose, I would say that perhaps it allows people with low self-esteem to practice before they enter the dating world, which might rightfully so frighten them a little bit.” She had a good point there.
As for why people would be interested in this, she had her ideas. “Maybe they happen to like this kind of game genre. Some people enjoy interactive story games like this because each choice they make could potentially lead them to a different ending.” More good points.
Marta was not surprised that the app had more than half a million downloads.” Such simulation games have started to become more popular and clearly they are still going strong,” she added. “It is also totally plausible that the app itself was hugely advertised or it has been recommended to many active users simply because they are constantly looking for something new to play.”
I listened to some clever insight. She wasn’t easily fooled. “Games which mainly center around choices are becoming very popular and pique quite a lot of interest,” she went on. “Moreover, adding a dating spin to it is a clever business strategy because companionship is what most people crave. It is also undeniable that dating apps are doing quite well these days. ” She noted Tinder, for instance. “It was a great app creation back in its heyday.”
We agreed there are potential dangers here. “I can definitely see some potential danger for those who become dependent on such apps and fall into the trap where they have to make small payments in order to continue to play.”
I think it is safe to say that such apps certainly have their pros and cons. They can prepare you for a real relationship but then again they can cause quite a distraction. Nevertheless, at the end of the day it is your money and you have a right to spend it however you please.
Still I would advise you all to read the app reviews before downloading such apps in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises. One user, Jennifer Bennett rated the app 2 stars, commenting in the reviews: “Great game if you want to know what it’s like to be ghosted REPEATEDLY!!!! I can’t believe I paid ACTUAL MONEY for any of these.” Megan Kruse also rated the app 2 stars and said: “I loved the game until I went to see how much it was to purchase another character. Almost 9$ [sic] ?? Forget that. I’ll finish with my free characters and then uninstalling.” Finally, even if you happen to enjoy such apps, it is sometimes wise to take a little break every now and then to enjoy the real world.
Good-bye Chase. It was fun. But it’s time to move on. In fact, more of us need to put the phone down and look up because – who knows? – maybe your potential Mr. or Ms. Right is currently sitting across from you right now and you have no idea because you were too focused on a game. I want to hear how amazing I am from someone real.