Bumble is flirting with the idea of AI-power dating. It’s a bad idea.

During Thursday’s Bloomberg Tech Summit, Bumble founder and executive chair Whitney Wolfe Herd disturbed dating folx everywhere when she said AI personas — or avatars of Bumble users — would be the next wave of dating.

The interview had started off well enough. “Loneliness is on the rise — it is actually one of the biggest issues humanity is facing,” Herd said. “I mean, according to the surgeon general and top doctors, loneliness is actually killing us. And social media, while it has its benefits, is not social media. It is antisocial media. So I think there’s something really powerful about the technology we’re building to really connect us: Go online to get offline.”

There is a world where your dating concierge could go and date for you with another dating concierge … and then you don’t have to talk to 600 people.

— BUMBLE executive chief WHITNEY WOLFE HERD

Things started to go a little off the rails shortly afterward, though, when Herd said the solution to the loneliness pandemic is the use of AI bots that could represent us in social interactions on dating platforms such as Bumble in order to make it more efficient, as it were, and narrow our selection.

“There is a world where your dating concierge could go and date for you with another dating concierge … and then you don’t have to talk to 600 people,” Wolfe Herd said.

We should be wary of the integration of AI into such private and intimate spaces. Meaningful connection and knowing how to navigate intimacy in a healthy and real way are critical not just for our individual survival but for our collective survival, as well.

And research shows that while AI can help us seem nicer and more responsive, its ubiquitous deployment ultimately erodes trust. “[C]onsistent with common assumptions about the adverse effects of AI, people are evaluated more negatively if they are suspected to be using algorithmic responses,” an article in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports notes. “Thus, even though AI can increase the speed of communication and improve interpersonal perceptions, the prevailing anti-social connotations of AI undermine these potential benefits if used overtly.”

It is well-documented that intimacy is critical for our mental, physical and emotional health. The integration of AI into dating threatens to further disconnect and isolate us, not to mention atrophy the muscles we need to be intimate with someone else. Intimacy is vulnerability. It is making mistakes and working through those mistakes with another. Using AI to minimize the likelihood of missteps and conflict and to make us more efficient gives us less practice at how to navigate the messy, complex — and beautiful — terrain of direct human connection. I’d argue that efficiency is incompatible with the necessary conditions for intimacy.

There’s also the issue of safety. Many queer people in parts of the world where it’s not safe to be queer, for instance, use dating and hookup apps to connect with other queer people. And when they are using those apps, such users are incredibly selective about what information they share. This is something I explored in some detail in my one-person show about using Tinder in Pakistan to meet other women — when I identified as a woman and lesbian. But dating apps that demand we provide our most intimate details and preferences to AI in order to share these details with whomever they see fit pose a major safety risk for many people.

If I were in Pakistan, for example, looking for dates, I would not trust AI to offer up personal information about me to other people when I couldn’t personally assess the profile I was interacting with. Dating is about building up trust and exchanging equally sensitive information to generate a greater feeling of safety.

Bumble is “a safer, kinder digital platform for more healthy and more equitable relationships, always putting women in the driver’s seat, not to put men down, but to actually recalibrate how we all treat each other — and so AI is going to follow the same set of values,” Wolfe Herd said.

Then there’s the matter of how much AI can really serve as a fitting substitute for ourselves; as humans we may not know we’re attracted to a person until we’re attracted to them.

I’m also skeptical that AI will help ensure women’s safety, as Herd claims Bumble does, given that technology and AI tend to reflect the people who design them — i.e., primarily cisgender, heterosexual, white men of means.

Then there’s the matter of how much AI can really serve as a fitting substitute for ourselves; as humans we may not know we’re attracted to a person until we’re attracted to them. And maybe this technology closes off avenues for us. As mentioned, I used to identify as a cisgender woman, for example, and I exclusively dated other femme-presenting cisgender women. Now I’m a trans man attracted to other transmasc individuals. This was only something I learned about myself through exploration. If I had relied on AI to be my dating concierge and plugged in my previous parameters and preferences, I could well have delayed this discovery about myself, if not inhibited it altogether. Attraction isn’t a science; there’s a mystery about it — for everyone — that (one hopes) technology can’t adequately replace.

It feels like a perversion that the proposed solution to the depersonalization and concomitant dehumanization of online dating is the integration of AI, which will only widen the schism between technology and human connection. “Need a solution to technology’s fraying our social connections? No worries! AI will fix it.” None of us should buy what they’re selling. 

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