THE FUTURE OF SEX
The week of February 8th, 2014

Predicting the future of online dating

By Emma McGowan

Five years ago, I was sitting next to a couple I’d just met at a friend’s dinner party in Brooklyn. They were the type of adorable couple that makes you want to puke, holding hands underneath the table and finishing each other’s sentences. Thinking that this match must have been made in heaven, I asked, “So, where’d you guys meet?”

I may as well have lifted the needle on our host’s vintage record player, as the cuteness screeched to a halt and they both turned bright red. Without looking at his girlfriend, the guy mumbled, “Um, the local bar?” and changed the subject.

I forgot about the exchange until a week later, when a mutual friend and I got to talking about the lovey-dovey couple. Turns out, they’d met on OkCupid.

Fast forward to 2015, and no one is ashamed to admit they met on the Internet. There’s no longer a stigma attached to using technology to find that special someone, and thanks to the rise of Tinder in 2014, everyone is wearing out their thumbs swiping left and right.

But what does the future of online dating hold for us?

A generation of “Internet sexuals”

For a generation that came of age in AOL chat rooms, the idea of incorporating technology into our sex and dating lives doesn’t seem that crazy. Plenty of us can remember “cybering” as teens, most of us have sexted explicit photos to a lover, and experimenting via webcam has helped numerous long-distance relationships last way past their expiration dates. Some of us—and I bet the number is higher than you’d think—have already had sexual relationships that existed solely online, without meeting our partners in person.

The future of online dating isn’t necessarily going to be totally offline or totally online.

Because we are, as Emily Witt recently coined in a post on Medium, becoming “Internet sexual,” how long will it be until we start taking human beings completely out of the picture?

According to Seth (who uses only his first name), the founder of teledildonics company FriXion, that future hasn’t arrived yet—but it’s coming. FriXion has developed Bluetooth-enabled sex toys, which allow one partner to feel the action the other one is taking. Instead of limiting webcam sex to mutual masturbation and dirty talk, FriXion users will be able to actually have penetrative sex through their computers.

While current FriXion technology is focused on webcam-to-webcam experiences, Seth thinks that pretty soon, humans will be able to have full-on romantic relationships with bots. Virtual worlds like Second Life and Utherverse already allow for people’s avatars to get down with and “date” other people’s avatars, and as artificial intelligence evolves, some of those avatars could easily develop into bots. In fact, a 2014 Pew Research Center report predicted that we’ll have fully functional robot lovers by 2025.

Thanks to the information that humans put into the system, the bots could start learning about the wide range of human emotion, action, and sexuality, making them virtually indistinguishable from the “real” people on the sites.

Seth says that artificially intelligent sex partners will completely change not just how we interact with technology, but also how we interact with other human beings.

“A girl’s with a guy because he’s really good in bed or has a big dick or whatever, but she puts up with a lot of crap like him just being lazy on her couch and making her pay for everything,” Seth says, positing a hypothetical scenario. “Would she put up with that if she had a sex toy like this, where she could fuck anybody any time, without the risk of STIs or pregnancy, or even had an AI bot that knows exactly what she wants, any time of day? That could definitely shift the power balance in these relationships.”

For a generation that came of age in AOL chat rooms, the idea of incorporating technology into our sex and dating lives doesn’t seem that crazy.

In Seth’s world, “Internet sexual,” describing someone who has sexual relationships with inanimate objects or people they never meet IRL, will be just another sexual orientation on our list of sexual preferences, just like gay, straight, or bisexual.  An Internet sexual person would simply prefer to be intimate with AI or bots over other human beings, or they’d prefer to date and have sex with other human beings only online. Every stage of the relationship, from the moment the couple meets to the first time they have sex to the marriage, would take place online.

Will most dating take place offline?

Some sex tech companies, like FriXion, OhMiBod, and the Netherlands-based long-distance sex toy startup Kiiroo, are already focusing on teledildonics and haptic technologies, the terminology for Wi-Fi–enabled sex toys that can be controlled via apps or other computer programs. But other companies are trying to get us off the Internet by using technology as the initial point of contact, before two people can meet up IRL.

Entrepreneur Lori Cheek is one of many who believe that online dating has pulled us further apart rather than bringing us closer together. She created the app Cheekd, which uses Bluetooth technology to let people know that someone in their immediate vicinity thinks they’re cute.

Cheek thinks that on-demand dating apps like Tinder have made it increasingly difficult and for people to take the first step toward connecting with people in real life rather than on their phones. “I think we’ve lost this human connection by being online all the time,” says Cheek. “There has to be something more tangible.”

Another company that uses technology to move dating offline is HowAboutWe, which describes itself with something of an oxymoron: “the Offline Dating Site.” Users suggest dates and connect with other singles by checking out what everyone is into. If one person likes another person’s date suggestion—and, of course, if one person thinks the other is cute—the interaction evolves into a real-life date.

This is not an isolated trend. While the first big wave of online dating sites, like OkCupid, Match.com, and eHarmony, required users to spend lots of time on the website answering questions and messaging back and forth, the more recent wave of dating apps focuses on getting couples offline as quickly as possible.

The ultimate algorithmic dating website would know so much about each individual that it would be unbeatable.

That trend speaks to the humanness of dating, whether the initial point of contact is via technology or someone’s best friend. That element of humanity is something I don’t think we’re ever going to lose touch with, even as bots get smarter.

Using Facebook as a matchmaking tool

The future of online dating isn’t necessarily going to be totally offline or totally online. It could, in fact, look a lot like online dating today—only smarter.

Using complex algorithms to match couples has always been the focus of online dating sites, from Match.com to OkCupid. Recently, newer dating sites like Hinge and Tinder, which are mobile and offer a quicker, more efficient sign-up process, have been moving away from questionnaire-fueled algorithms. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on using algorithms altogether. We just have to change where they get their information from.

Most online dating sites believe that their algorithms, which are all based on information that users explicitly give them in combination with some semi-scientific methodology, are the best out there. But the truth is, they’re still largely flying blind. Those algorithms are only as smart as the information we explicitly provide —and sometimes we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

The information that we enter online when we’re interacting with non-dating sites—what we buy, the links we click, the things we post on Facebook—reveals much more about us than any questionnaire ever could. That’s why our non-dating online activity has the greatest potential to reveal our subconscious desires, our deepest wishes, and things that we may not even know about ourselves.

As the hub of all social networking for hundreds of millions of people, Facebook is currently best positioned to turn our online information into the super-smart algorithmic matching method that other dating sites lack. The social network is already matching couples, both through the “People You May Know” feature and singles stumbling on the profiles of mutual friends. But when we look to the future of online dating, it’s users’ own data sets that have the most potential for matchmaking.

If we let numbers and data do the matchmaking for us, would anyone ever work up the nerve to tell that friend they have a crush on them?

Yoke, which launched in 2012, can be viewed as a rudimentary example of how Facebook data can be used for matchmaking. As one of the first sites that allowed you to log in through Facebook, Yoke utilized “its own and third party APIs” to translate actions that people took on Facebook, such as liking something or listing it on your profile, to determine who would be a good match with whom. The site’s URL is no longer working, and its Facebook page (which has only 152 likes) hasn’t shown any activity since 2012, but Yoke’s approach to data-based matchmaking gives us some insight into how Facebook could use its own data to create romantic pairs.

In truth, we don’t even know exactly how much Facebook knows about us—but we know it’s a lot. Considering that millions of people have entire social lives that exist within the Facebook Graph API, it wouldn’t be difficult for Facebook to decide that it was going to use that information to not only predict whether a relationship is going to last but actually set those relationships up in the first place.

Leaving it all to the algorithms

Envisioning Facebook as the future of online matchmaking leads us to the inevitable, somewhat terrifying question: What if one dating app or online matchmaking company got its hands on all of our data? As privacy concerns loom larger in people’s minds, one company becoming the evil overlord of them all is unlikely—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

The ultimate algorithmic dating website would know so much about each individual that it would be unbeatable. Rather than forcing users to sift through a huge roster of potential mates, such a website would give online daters the security of knowing that each match was determined through millions of data points, exponentially increasing the likelihood of a “happily ever after.”

Of course, there’s one drawback to this kind of all-powerful algorithm: It could potentially remove the serendipity and randomness from dating. If we let numbers and data do the matchmaking for us, would anyone ever work up the nerve to tell that friend they have a crush on them or bother approaching a cute guy on the train, especially if they knew a website could guarantee a better match for them?

There’s something undeniably frightening about a romantic future where computers and algorithms do all the work. If nothing else, it would almost certainly signal the death knell of the rom-com—but if all else fails, we can just stick to having sex with robots.

Photo via Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed