If a computer could pair you up with a perfect mate, would you want its advice? If an artificial intelligence could train you to woo the partner of your dreams, would you seek its wisdom? What if technologies were better at finding and attracting the object of your ideal romance than you were? What if they already are?
Both science fiction and fantasy are filled with stories where people manufacture romantic partners or compel partners to fall in love with them. But what about stories where technologies help you determine whom and how to woo? We look at fictional and actual innovations that try to partner people up — and whether they're successful.
Top image from TiMER.
Data Analysis: Let's start of with the eHarmony approach to romance. The idea is that you gather enough metrics about a person: their background, occupation, interests, values, attitudes, and you match them up with the person whose traits most closely complement their own. But Neil Clark Warren wasn't the first person to envision romance via computer match-up. In fact, in 1966, a company called Match, founded by two Harvard undergrads, promised to match college students with compatible mates based on personality questionnaires. The Match-makers rented a computer at $100 an hour, and processed the 90,000 applications. With computer-assisted dating in its infancy, however, there were a few mistakes. Girls looking for beaux were matched with other girls. Siblings were matched up. At least one co-ed, though, after being matched with an ex-boyfriend, decided to start seeing him again, figuring the computer might be on to something.
Moving into fiction, in Isaac Asimov's 1977 story "True Love," a computer programmer designs a program, Joe, to match him up with his ideal woman. After realizing that creating a list of ideal physical characteristics will get him nowhere, the programmer, Milton, tries to get Joe to match him up with the perfect mate based on his personality. He starts talking to Joe about himself, making Joe understand every aspect his persona. Since Joe is hooked up to a database containing info on all the human beings in the world, he can use the information about Milton to select just the right lady. The system probably works, but by then Joe has incorporated so much of Milton's personality into his programming that he wants that perfect woman all to himself.
Later stories would envision computer-made matches on a larger scale. TiMER (which was recently featured on our list of great science fiction romantic comedies) is deliberately cagey about how its soulmate-identification devices work, but there are references to hormone levels, common interests, physical attraction, and a host of other factors. The TiMER corporation seems to have perfected data analysis for not just whom a person will fall in love with, but also when they are ready to fall deeply in love. In the Society of Ally Condie's Matched series, the government determines everything — your profession, where you live, whom you marry, when you die — according to test, data, and protocol. The Society has an algorithm for matching appropriate male and female partners for marriage, and the truth is, it seems to work quite well. The only hitch in the system is that not everyone gets thrown in for matching, so it's possible that, while you'll get a great match, you might not necessarily get the best match.
Real-life data-based matchmaking isn't quite up to the same level. In 2009, a group of psychology researchers conducted a two-year study of dating sites like eHarmony and Chemistry. The researchers weren't fully convinced of the scientific validity of these data-based matching services, and couldn't determine that they were any more successful than other means of identifying potential partners. But none of that stops the OK Cupid data trends blog from being endlessly fascinating.
Artificially Intelligent Wingmen and Wingwomen: In "An Eligible Boy," a story from Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days, a young man hoping to find himself a wife gets a wingman in the form of an artificial intelligence soap opera star. The AI happily identifies a prospective partner, then goes to work instructing the bachelor on how to woo her. Not wholly unlike the omniscient computers chewing on data and spitting out matches, the idea is that this AI is programmed with suave psychology; he's quick on his feet and knows how to create an air of mystery.
It's neat a fantasy from a world where computer processors can outthink humans, but McDonald is quick to point down the potential downside. If we all have little sprites whispering in our ears, at what point are we no longer courting each other and instead having our AIs court each other's AIs? If marriage is your only goal (and, granted, in the India of Cyberabad Days, where young men outnumber young women four to one, it's pretty darned important), then that's fine, but you're not likely to find your most compatible partner if everyone is just a mouthpiece for a dating AI.
Genetic Compatibility Tests: In the eugenics-driven future of Gattaca, nabbing a person's hair is the equivalent of Google-stalking; one simple DNA test telling you all you think you need to know about your romantic prospects. I'd imagine that in that world, people who are interested in having children probably do turn to genetic dating services (and maybe genetic reproductive services), to find reproductive partners who can help you make superbabies.
DNA dating seems to come up more in commerce than in fiction. Companies like GenePartner claim that love can be found between genetically compatible partners. Yes, high fertility is a component of their claims, but they also claim that compatible human leukocyte antigens — the group of genes responsible for immune function — ensure interpersonal chemistry and a fulfilling sex life. The jury is still out on whether similar immune systems really play that great a role in attraction, and even if your genes say one thing about your HLAs, your behaviors might mean another. After all, smoking, fat, and even hormonal birth control can have an effect on our immune systems and how we perceive the immune systems of potential partners. Even GenePartner doesn't think genetics are the end-all, be-all of attraction. They recommend that you carry those genetic matches over to social dating sites to see if you're social compatible as well.
Your Attractiveness Scores, On Display: This one's similar to the love through data analysis, but with a social media twist. In Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, the RateMe Plus system lets you see how attractive you find other people based on fuckability, personality, and sustainabilit¥ (meaning you've got the yuan) — and how attractive they find you. How does the system know the qualities you find attractive better than you do? It looks at your dating history, purchase history, social media streams, whatever data it can get a hold of, and compares it to the person that you're looking at. In theory, two prospective partners who come up with similarly high fuckability and personality scores for one another might find at least short term happiness — and perhaps, for some people, a high sustainabilit¥ score will compensate for low fuckability and personality scores. However, since RateMe Plus predicts your future decisions based on your past decisions, it's just encouraging you to make the same, possibly terrible, choices over and over again.
Time Travel: Going farther into speculative technologies, time travel could go a long way toward taking the mystery out of the dating process. If you are in a fixed universe, with no possibility of changing your fate, then time travel could show the person or persons you will end up with. Clare, in Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, knew the identity of her future husband because he was a time traveler, although his time travel was neither technological, nor voluntary. In that case, free will was irrelevant; anything that was to happen in the future would be inevitable. If, on the other hand, you are able to change your destiny or enter into a different timeline, perhaps time travel could give an indication whom you should — or should not — partner up with. Although time travel might just resign you to the path of least resistance; in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five Billy Pilgrim knows he doesn't love his fiancee Valencia, but his time travel assures him that he will be wealthy and his marriage will be bearable.
On the other hand, time travel can sometimes be harmful to your love life. In another involuntary instance of time travel, Futurama's "Time Keeps On Slippin'," the Planet Express crew find themselves randomly leaping forward in time without any memory of what happened in the intervening moments. After one of those time skips, Fry finds himself married to Leela, the love of his life, but neither of them can remember how he convinced her to tie the knot (and, by the time he figures it out, it's too late). Of course, since Fry and Leela's entire relationship is built on a variety of time travel and cryogenic incidents, he can hardly blame the technology for separating them in this one tiny instance.
What other technologies — in real life or stories — try to pair people up? How successful are they?