Robot love

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Today's SMBC:

At least equally plausible — Laurie Penny, "The Future of Work: Real Girls", Wired 12/17/2018:

LATE JUNE. SWELTERING, airless English summer heat. 4,165 days since the financial crash. 1,112 days since Charlie Barrett—described by everyone, including his mother, as a nice young man, considering—graduated with a degree in English, eyewatering debt, and a thundering case of impostor syndrome. And three days since the girl who made everything bearable, the girl who held his heart between her hands like an egg and hated it when he called her a girl, even though she was the only girl, The Girl—three days since she had told him to pack up his dignity and leave.

It was two months till the lease they shared ran out, during which time Becky would occasionally stay at her sister’s. When someone tells you they just can’t respect you anymore and they’re sick of paying for everything and picking up your socks while you find your feet, you can’t really negotiate.

Well, you can, and Charlie had. He’d been upset; he hadn’t been thinking properly. In hindsight those were excuses he’d probably worn out. Either way, his immediate problem was how to make two grand in two months and persuade Becky to let him stay.

Which is how Charlie came to be working as a fake robot girlfriend.

The Boy—the boy whose robot girlfriend Charlie was paid to pretend to be—lived eight time zones and more than 5,000 miles away in San Jose, which was somewhere people always seemed to be trying to get to in old songs. Charlie lived in Guildford, which wasn’t. So while Charlie’s real human ex-girlfriend went out to all the parties, Charlie stayed up late eating crackers and trying to fail the Turing test for money.

> You’re different from all the other girls I know, The Boy said on that particular Tuesday night.

> Obviously I am different from other girls, Charlie replied.

It was Niall who put him on to the gig. Money for free, Niall said. Niall was a ludicrous and exhausting out-of-work actor whom Charlie would never have associated with if he were not also his very best friend. “All you have to do,” Niall said, “is sit up all night on the internet talking to depressed strangers about their conspiracy theories, and you do that already. Just remember to ask them about their feelings too.”

Niall explained that a lot of lonely people liked the idea of having a robot girlfriend who was always on call and had no feelings of her own, a remote algorithm that could shape itself to your particular needs—they’d seen it on TV. But the technology just wasn’t there yet.

Hence the front company. All over the world, Niall said, broke millennials who needed cash fast were signing NDAs and signing on to pretend to be robots.


  1. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 4:12 pm


  2. David Morris said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

    Let's hope The Boy from San Jose doesn't read this!

  3. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 6, 2019 @ 5:51 pm

    Wouldn't "trying to fail the Turing test" imply that Charlie wants The Boy to know the difference?

  4. Idran said,

    January 6, 2019 @ 7:11 pm

    @Gregory: That's exactly it in the story, yeah. (It's a work of fiction, that link.) The clients of this service "know" they're talking to chatbots, not real people, and so Charlie has to keep up that illusion. I suppose the idea is that it's easier to hire someone to pretend to be a chatbot than to write a chatbot that's close enough to be a satisfying conversational partner for people looking for this sort of faux-intimacy.

    It's a good story, if short; worth a read.

  5. David Morris said,

    January 6, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    Further thought: wouldn't The Boy expect access to chatting 24/7? But humans have to sleep sometime.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    January 7, 2019 @ 7:08 am

    Given the premise, I think it would be perfectly reasonable for multiple people to take shifts on The Boy's account. As a chatbot, you're not supposed to be able to remember what happened in earlier conversations.

  7. Patrick said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 11:35 am

    "the boy whose robot girlfriend Charlie was paid to pretend to be"

    Not sure if it qualifies for a Trent Reznor prize, but wow that took me a few readings to understand…

  8. Trogluddite said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 9:07 am

    The tone and style of the writing make me suspect that the writer intended us to stumble a little when parsing that phrase; the moment of head-scratching rather neatly emphasises the strangeness of the situation it describes (or maybe I'm just rationalising my own little stumble over it!)

  9. Keith said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 11:57 am

    Maybe the story was written by a chatbot…

  10. Keith said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 11:58 am

    Or maybe Laurie Penny wrote it in such a way to make us think it was written by a chatbot…

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