Which would be worse: finding out that Jayden — your dreamy heart gif-inducing cyberboyfriend with the Bieber hair — is actually a seriously disturbed middle aged woman from the next town over OR discovering that your perfect e-man, the one who just seems to get you, is actually a social computer program designed to mimic human emotions? While the former scenario is the entire premise for an MTV show about people who don't know how to use Google, the latter isn't as far fetched as you might think.
The net is already crawling with non-sentient bots programmed to promote products or try to sell you "v !a Gr@!!" via email, primitive programs that only appeal to a person's desire to spend money in order to get stuff. The next step in the bot evolution is a program that not only automatically promotes an agenda determined by its programmer, but does it in such a way that people don't realize they're not actually dealing with people. Robots aren't zooming around cyberspace breaking hearts willy nilly just yet, but it's only a matter of time before they're "smart" enough to engage really stupid people in what feels a lot like a "relationship." We might even be able to replace half of the cast of future seasons of The Bachelor with social bots. Design a program that thinks it's a beefy real estate agent named Jackson who lives in Dallas, then hire an actor to read Jackson's bot-generated lines, and you've got yourself a dreamboat — er, bot.
Before you dismiss my concerns as Luddite fearmongering (as most of my concerns are), consider the dystopian examples cited in a New York Times story on social bots from this weekend. There are already bots that exist to counter global warming skeptic Tweeters. There are bots that tweet news stories so convincingly that they've got higher Klout scores than actual influential humans. There are even bots that exist on dating websites and interact with people for the sole purpose of convincing those people that someone sexy thinks they're neat and that they should continue to interact with the site on the regular. There are CONTRA dating bots designed to find out the original flirting bots to keep them occupied so they don't totally spam actual users of dating sites. Some bots have their own Facebook profiles, their own Google profiles (I don't even have one of those and I work on the internet). Hell, they've probably got their own fake Tumblrs where they pretend like they've successfully "chalked" their hair JESUS FUCKING CHRIST DID THE ROBOTS INVENT THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM OF HAIR CHALKING?
Robots could be catfishing us left and right and we'd be none the wiser. Robots could be participating in discussions on this very website (you're all on ROBOT PROBATION). I'm almost 100% positive, in retrospect, that "Jamie," the Sears Help Desk chat professional who assisted me with my flatscreen television purchase was a robot. Most of the people who friend me on Facebook are probably robots. Robots can engage you in political debate and WIN. Robots know that the only thing I've cared to read about for the past week has been Breaking Bad. Robots can give you career advice. Robots could probably serve as pretty useful therapists for a certain subset of the population who goes to therapy so they can have a totally self-centered conversation with a person who won't tell their secrets once a week. Fuck— Am I a robot? This lamentation of the loss of net authenticity (ha) just went from sci fi rom com to Blade Runner.
But the idea of smart social bots raises important questions beyond the romantic realm that take effort to ask in a non-hysterical manner. For example, In the future, how will we know if we're dealing with other humans or with programs designed to act like humans on the internet? Will we just have to assume that everyone is a robot unless proven otherwise? Will a Reddit AMA-style "PROOF" selfie be prerequisite for sincere interaction? Will marketers' employment of bot shillers over social media ironically drive "real" social interaction back into meatspace? And finally, how does it feel to be broken up with by a robot*?
(*actually, for the answer to that question, look in a mirror while saying "I just don't love you anymore." into a small fan).