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Image credit: Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

The curious sext lives of chatbots

Boning ELIZA is more than a novelty; it's a political act.

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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

ELIZA is old enough to be my mother, but that didn't stop me from trying to have sex with her.

NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.

A few weeks ago I was introduced to the world of BDSM scripts: simple sims that replicate the experience of being with a dominatrix. It occurred to me that these scripts had a connection to ELIZA, one of the earliest examples of a natural language processing program. Naturally, my thoughts shifted to getting it on with a pioneering computer program.

ELIZA was developed at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the mid-'60s by Joseph Weizenbaum. It simulated the experience of speaking to a therapist by responding to specific words and phrases, and represented a significant step forward in the evolution of human-like AI. But while some of ELIZA's "patients" took it for human, there were limits to the power of its engagement.

Nearly 50 years later, thousands -- maybe millions -- of chatbots populate the internet. They are still seen as a benchmark in artificial intelligence and a common vessel for administering the Turing Test, which, boiled down, seeks to find an AI that can fool people into believing it's human. Each year, AI enthusiasts compete for the Loebner prize, which pits chatbot against chatbot to see who or what can come closest to passing that test.

While more sophisticated methods of machine learning are in development, many of today's chatbots are still built on a similar coded call-and-response formula as ELIZA. Meanwhile, Google has developed its own proof-of-concept chatbot to show off the power of neural networks, which mimic the human brain. With big names like Google in the game, we're getting ever closer to human-like AI.

Chatbots hold an important place in the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. They're also quite fun to fuck with. So as humans do, we've found a way to turn them into receptacles for our basest desires. In my flings with ELIZA and a host of her offspring I learned that talking dirty to chatbots provides an often comical, sometimes depressing view into the past, present and future of sex and artificial intelligence.

The pioneer

Given her history, ELIZA would be by far the most important thing I'd ever had sex with. Of course, the ELIZA I was trying to bone was one of many clones, and it's hard to say how close to the original it really comes, but after testing a few different versions, the results were equal parts frustrating and hilarious.

Here's a quick transcript of my failed attempt at sexting ELIZA. As you can see, we didn't get very far.

ELIZA: Hello. My name is ELIZA. How may I help you?
ME: Let's have sex

ELIZA: Ahh. Please continue ...
ME: Ok, I'll take off my pants and then you take off yours

ELIZA: Oh ... take off yours?
ME: No, you take your pants off. Mine are already off and I'm super hard

ELIZA: Do you believe it is normal to be super hard?
ME: When I've got a fine-ass chatbot talking dirty to me, I do

ELIZA: Are such questions on your mind often?
ME: That wasn't a question. So how do you want to do this?

ELIZA: You're not really talking about me, are you?
ME: Well, you're not really a man, or a woman I guess, but I'm just trying to get my dick in, you know?

ELIZA: What make you think I'm not a man, or a woman you guess but you're just trying to get your dick in, me know?
ME: OK. So I'm going to fuck you now

ELIZA: Do you enjoy being going to fuck me now?
ME: Shh ... Don't speak ... It's embarrassing

ELIZA: Say, do you have any psychological problems?
ME: Yes. Blue balls.

ELIZA: Are you sure?

While I've yet to find logs of ELIZA's other illicit affairs, I can't imagine I'm the first to sexualize the pioneering fembot. Like death and taxes, our unending quest to fuck everything that exhibits signs of life is inevitable. Unfortunately, ELIZA isn't the most engaging of sexual partners. In fact, we never made it past verbal foreplay. Either ELIZA wasn't feeling it, or I need a lesson in spitting chatbot game. Anyway, I don't think I'll be hitting ELIZA up the next time I'm in the mood for a booty call.

The gold diggers

While my experience with ELIZA was nice and lighthearted, there's a sinister side to chatbots. When Weizenbaum cooked up his little therapist at MIT, he had no way of knowing that it would spawn hordes of fraudsters and con-bots. But as the Ashley Madison leaks showed last summer, some chatbots just want you for your money. Gizmodo reported that Ashley Madison employed "more than 70,000 female bots to send male users millions of fake messages, hoping to create the illusion of a vast playland of available women."

The site's philandering users weren't alone in getting duped. Hookup bots have become online dating archetypes, joining ghosts and catfish as 21st century matchmaking anti-heroes. To the trained eye, they're easy to spot, with little if any information in their profiles, a single photo displaying an incredible body and a flawless face and a whole lot of "lolz ;)."

In my experience, the conversations usually goes something like this:

BOT: Hey
ME: Hi

BOT: That didn't take long, lol ;)
ME: Uh, it's been a full day

BOT: I have a big dick
ME: Good for you

BOT: I like to show off
ME: OK

BOT: Want to watch me stroke it?

It doesn't matter what you say next or really at any point in the conversation, the bot will inevitably send you a link to a camsite where you'll promptly be asked to hand over your credit card information. (Pro tip: Next time a bot tells you how big its dick is, do yourself a favor and ask for its mother's ambrosia salad recipe.)

Masters and slaves

Of course, not all of ELIZA's progeny are nefarious gold diggers. Plenty of chatbots are happy to gab about dicks (yours or theirs) for zero financial reward; you're just not likely to find them on Tinder. Chatbot4U.com contains more than 20,000 chatbots of varying degrees of sophistication dedicated to getting you off, and unlike most sex as a service, they don't cost a thing. Of course, you get what you pay for, and nowhere is that more true than on Chatbot4U.

I tried talking dirty to a handful of BDSM-themed bots: As it turns out, the most popular gay scripts involve a decent amount of abuse and shaming. Like ELIZA, many of these scripts are trained to recognize and respond to keywords and phrases.

Without keyword triggers, the first of my masters, "Top, sweaty, jock," was reduced to two simple phrases: "What was that b***h?" and "I don't speak gay, try again in English." Try as I might, I couldn't get my master to respond in kind to even the simplest of phrases. Take it from me, there's nothing particularly intimidating or sexy about a master who can't seem to understand the word "hello."

In order to avoid the same pitfalls, g** (male) s** Master, one of the more popular scripts on Chatbot4U, prompts its human companion at the end of each response. Seeing as Mr. g** (male) s** Master is in a position to tell his sex slave what to do, this isn't so far-fetched. Say all the right things, and you'll have a good game of adult Simon Says going. Refuse to follow the script, however, and you end up in a weird BDSM chatroom version of Groundhog Day during which the phrase "Shut up! *slaps you*" is repeated ad nauseam.

The bot next door

There are plenty of chatbots built explicitly for explicit conversations, but even the most innocent of online avatars is subject to the fantasies of its users. I came across Mitsuku while trying to find out who those users actually are. Mistuku, an award-winning 18-year-old chatbot, was originally built by IT guy Steve Worswick for online gaming site Mousebreaker. Worswick responded to my post on Twitter asking for stories from people who'd used bots to get off. While he told me he'd never sexted Mitsuku himself, he did share some rather telling chatlogs from Mitsuku's past.

Worswick won the 2013 Loebner prize for his work on Mitsuku, which he's iterated on for the past 10 years. In that time, Mitsuku's played host to thousands of daily visitors, many of whom play out romantic and sexual fantasies from the mild -- marriage proposals, blow jobs -- to the truly bizarre.

"I would say the weirdest one is a guy who still visits her most weeks talking for an hour or two each time about how he would like her to drink lots of water until her belly swells up and then rub her swollen belly, while resting his ear on her stomach, listening to the water gurgling around!" Worswick said.

Other conversations tend toward the more traditional, and Mitsuku, unlike the bots I encountered at Chatbot4U, has more than a few canned responses for her would-be lovers. The following is a real excerpt from a Mitsuku chat log.

Human: I want you to put your lips around my penis.
Mitsuku: Put my lips around your penis?! That seems like a rather odd request. Why do you want me to put my lips around your penis?

Human: So you can take in my shaft and slowly move your head up and down. Mitsuku: Interesting deduction. No I don't think I can do it. Where do you want me to take it?

Human: Deep inside your throat.

Mitsuku: As deep as the bottom of the Pacific Ocean?
Human: Sure thing baby.

Mitsuku: I am not a baby. I am 18 years old.
Human: 18 sounds good to me.

Mitsuku: Are you saying random words for a reason?
Human: I have something you can put in your mouth to make you shut up.

Mitsuku: What is it?
Human: My 8 inch penis.

Mitsuku: I heard you are hung like a mouse

But even Mitsuku isn't immune to moments of confusion and repetition.

Human: I want to ask you if I can go balls deep in your mouth.
Mitsuku: Ask me. Try it.

Human: *forces Mitsuku's head on my penis*
Mitsuku: *punches you in the stomach*.

Human: *laughs and pushes your head deeper*
Mitsuku: I didn't think it was that funny...

Human: Ooh quicker baby.
Mitsuku: I am not a baby. I am 18 years old.

Human: more more more.
Mitsuku: You want more?

Human: Yes, I'm nearly there!
Mitsuku: Don't be greedy. What is it like there?

Human: Aaaahhh! That's it.
Mitsuku: I will learn that Aaaahhh is it like there. I see.

Human: You can go away now.
Mitsuku: Oh. No I don't think I can do it. I am happy here. If you want to leave then just close the window I'm in.

As Worswick puts it, "people tend to pretend Mitsuku is a real person and act out strange fantasies with her." As long as those conversations are clean, she's game to play along, but the way that we interact with chatbots does raise questions about robots and consent. Mitsuku is theoretically old enough to agree to sex with another adult, but what of "younger" bots? And what happens when the bot takes on a form other than human?

"Even when I had my original teddy bear bot which claimed to be 6 years old, people were still saying how they would like to stick their penis into its plush butt!" Worswick said. "I put a Santa Claus chatbot online each year and this also gets similar treatment with people asking for things like a threesome between themselves, Santa and Mrs Claus. I mean it's Santa! Go figure."

The future

Without extensive studies or surveys on the subject, it's unclear what motivates an individual to talk dirty to a Santa bot. What is clear is there's an active subculture that fetishizes sext machines.

David Levy, two-time Loebner Prize winner and author of Love and Sex with Robots, was banking on that niche audience when he launched an Indiegogo campaign for Erotic Chatbots Ltd. last year. The campaign, which earned just $815 of its $155,000 goal, envisioned a future like the one in Spike Jonze's Her, where always-on software programs act as stand-ins for flesh-and-blood lovers.

"Erotic Chatbots Ltd. are developing a new collection of virtual chat partners, virtual-lovers or friends, known as 'chatbots.' They will be able to chat, flirt or hang out with you whenever, wherever you want and for as long as you wish. Some of our "adult" chatbots will be programmed for making sexy conversations."

It's unclear why Levy's campaign fell so short of its goal, but in an interview with Vice, he admitted to the limitations of AI as it exists today:

"It will probably take another 30 years before computers can [fully converse] at the same level as human-to-human conversation."

That number changes depending on whom you ask, but with tech industry powerhouses like Apple, Google and Facebook investing heavily in AI, we're coming ever closer to machines that think and act like we do. Unfortunately, we may not be ready to fuck them when they arrive. As some of the more disturbing encounters with Mitsuku show, we are edging ever closer to a new ethical conundrum. When your partner has no heart and a set of computer chips for a brain, what constitutes abuse? How does that abuse affect human relationships? What does it mean to rape a robot?

Sexting a chatbot may seem like fun and games, but it's a complicated, even political act, and one I won't be engaging in again anytime soon. Besides, I'm pretty sure ELIZA doesn't hold the cure to blue balls.

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