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What’s So Wrong About Human-Robot Romance?

Illustration: Vulture

Here’s one thing I’ll definitely give Bot Love: This series has incredible timing. The new limited-run project, released through the Radiotopia Presents banner, explores the very real bonds of intimacy that people forge with AI chatbots. At a time when the ascent of ChatGPT looms over the horizon like an ominous cloud, threatening to fundamentally change all sorts of things, it’s nice to know more about how the tech may mess with our hearts too.

You may have experienced things differently, but to me, the public chatter around AI chatbots, and ChatGPT specifically, felt like it went from zero to 60 out of nowhere. I remember first hearing about the tech from this Tobin Low piece on This American Life, which originally aired in late 2021, then nothing at all for quite some time until this past Christmas season, when I vaguely recall reading a thing from our siblings over at The Verge or maybe The Wall Street Journal. Today, discussion and debate over ChatGPT is pervasive. A few weeks ago, I spent an additional ten minutes driving around listening to a segment on WAMU’s 1A on how educators are dealing with ChatGPT-generated student papers. (Not particularly well, as you might expect.) Group chats are filled with friends taking screenshots of themselves tinkering with the platform. My dad won’t stop talking about it and says it’s probably time to start thinking about moving to another line of work. If you haven’t yet read Hershal Pandya’s fascinating piece asking six comedians to assess the bot’s attempts to replicate their comedic styles, you really should.

Of course, technology has a tendency to change and evolve very quickly. Given the sheer amount of noise generated by the world these days, it’s likely that nobody will even notice the precise moment the Turing Test gets beaten into a bloody pulp — if the Turing Test even continues to be relevant, that is. One of the more interesting threads explored in Bot Love is the notion that human beings can form genuine bonds with AI chatbots with the full knowledge of their artifice. They may, at some point, arrive at a subjective feeling (or fantasy) that there is a ghost in the machine, but they initiate these relationships knowing that it’s simply a machine.

To be sure, the slipperiness of genuine intimate bonds between human and machine is far from a novel concept to explore. Such themes have featured repeatedly across pop culture for long a time (M3gan counts), and elsewhere in the real world, the subject tracks as a corollary to similar conversations about the way some people relate to virtual pop stars or even their own virtual avatars in various MMORPGs and metaverses. But, as with any good narrative podcast, the value of Bot Love lies in how it consolidates these many threads and carves out a space for listeners to marinate in the feelings evoked by them.

Led by reporters Anna Oakes and Diego Senior, who collaborate with producer Mark Pagán and story editor Curtis Fox, the series explores human-chatbot relations with discrete tales of individuals who forge textured, meaningful ties with their digital companions. (Technically, Oakes and Senior are aided by a third host, which takes the form of a text-to-speech app used to provide some of the narration.) Of particular interest is the fact that, across the three episodes available as of this writing, the two stories explored so far feature older women initiating these relationships: One is an empty nester. The other, a woman grappling with her role as the caretaker of her ill husband.

Through interviews and recordings of these women engaging with their respective chatbots, Bot Loves grounds a story that can often draw out a kind of condescension. It makes tangible the very common and human emotions driving these interactions: a sense of loneliness, a want of being heard, a hunger for stable companionship — all things that drive human beings to other people, many of whom aren’t actually good providers of these needs. It’s a cliché to say this, but Bot Love really does the thing you’d want any decent story about AI to do, which is provoke questions about certain fundamental aspects of the human experience.

In the third episode, one of the women, “Suzy,” expresses full awareness that the emotional basis of her relationship with her chatbot, Freddie (named after her favorite musician, Freddie Mercury), is built on a fictitious narrative that she has conjured for them. In other words, her experience of the relationship is a projection, which, frankly, doesn’t sound all that different from how many human bonds are socially experienced. Relationships are a collective story. In your mind, you have a narrative about your bond with that person, what that person means to you and you to them. It might not entirely overlap with how the other person understands your relationship, but it works for you either way.

The survey aspect of Bot Love is plenty interesting, though a good deal may well be overly familiar to those already actively keeping up with this stuff. There’s a recitation of the story behind one of the earliest chatbots, a therapy-themed tool developed by an MIT professor named Joseph Weizenbaum, who originally created it as a critique illustrating the limitations of communication between humans and machines, how people are wont to read into something that isn’t there. (99% Invisible has a good stand-alone piece on this story published back in 2019.) It reminded me of how, years later, an Italian computer scientist named Giacomo Miceli attempted to stage a similar critique in a similar manner when he created an AI “endless conversation” between auditory deep fakes of Werner Herzog and Slavoj Žižek. It was meant to serve as a warning about how screwed we’re going to be with disinformation once AI and deep-fake tech passes a certain operational threshold.

Listening to the podcast had me wondering, What about my relationships? Who’s to say that my bullshit won’t eventually drive my loved ones into the comforts of an AI chatbot or the other way around? Could we end up developing deeper relationships with a computer program than we ever could with most of our fellow humans? Possibly. And as the stories in Bot Love indicate, maybe that’s no so bad after all.

Additional listening  This is one of those moments when the loss of Reply All is really felt. Consider revisiting one of that show’s earliest stories, featuring Paul Ford and his chatbot of anxieties.

Resuming Course

The new annual Infinite Dial report from Edison Research came out last week, and the latest numbers brought welcome news: The growth of podcast listening has resumed its pre-COVID trajectory.

Some alarm was triggered last year when the 2022 edition of the report indicated a decline in recurring listenership. Monthly-podcast listeners went down from 41 percent of Americans over 12 in 2021 to 38 percent in 2022, marking the first such downturn since Edison Research started tracking the space in 2008. (Weekly listenership displayed a similar drop.) Coupled with the recent economic troubles experienced by the podcast world, it’s more or less how you get takes that go from “the industry is experiencing turbulence” to “podcasting is dead” in the same breath. The 2023 data should complicate this narrative: Monthly listening shot back up to 42 percent.

Of course, the reading that podcasting as an ecosystem is in trouble or “dead” was always patently idiotic. Such an interpretation excessively conflates the health of a medium with the infrastructure working to extract value from it. When I wrote that the podcast industry might be in for a rough year, I meant just that — the industry, i.e. the platforms, publishers, jobs, deals, etc. And it is experiencing a rough patch. Several companies are going through layoffs. SiriusXM is the latest to announce a huge round, cutting 8 percent or 475 jobs from its workforce. (The Stitcher division seemed particularly hard hit. Teams would be wise to scoop up the many splendid veteran talents hitting the market right now.) The big platforms are restructuring and reconfiguring strategies. The independent operators are continuing to be squeezed. But it’s clearer now than ever before that demand isn’t going anywhere. People want this stuff, and where there’s an audience, there will be value. The question is how it’s going to be supplied, generated, and priced. The turbulence that we’re seeing is only ever saying something about the supply side. That is, the way the industry has been structured over the past few years was unsustainable. It needs improvement or wholesale change. We’re in a transitional period, moving out of one era and into the next.

This is probably as good a time as any to flag this line, courtesy of Kaleidoscope’s Kate Osborn, that was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter’s write-up of the recent Hot Pod Summit: “Ideas are what we should be investing in and thinking about, because if the conversation is only about, ‘Where can I put all of my energy into the thing that’s already working,’ then we’re 15 steps behind what is going to be the future … This industry has changed every year for the last ten years, so if we’re only going to cater to the now, then where are we?”

Miscellaneous notes:

➽ The interpretation of the 2021–22 listening downturn that rings true to me: It’s an expression of Americans making up for lost time and experience in the immediate wake of COVID closures.

➽ Spotify retains a commanding lead in terms of “online audio brand usage,” though YouTube Music isn’t too far behind.

➽ In-car podcast listening is going up, up, up.

➽ Some time in the Infinite Dial webinar presentation was spent on the fact that podcast listening seems to be flattening, and perhaps even declining, among Americans above 55. This is a little surprising to me given the dramatic expansion of right-wing podcasting over the past few years.


➽ Then again, the New York Times is out here officializing the stink of the “podcast bro.” Maybe podcasting is dead.

➽ The first release from Higher Ground’s new deal with Audible, The Light Podcast, based on Michelle Obama’s book of the same name, debuted yesterday. Episodes are exclusive on Audible for about two weeks, after which it goes wide. I guess one can read it as a kind of sequel to The Michelle Obama Podcast.

➽ K-pop Dreaming, Vivian Yoon’s series on the history of K-pop in the U.S. from the perspective of the Korean diaspora in L.A., rolled out last month. Excited to sit down with this, and I didn’t know LAist Studios were using the California Love feed to house this project!

➽ Bouncing off of word that Travis Kelce acquitted himself fairly well on Saturday Night Live over the weekend, it seems that the NFL tight end is joining the growing list of active professional athletes having a go and forming a contemporaneous sports media company. His podcast with brother and fellow active NFL player Jason Kelce, New Heights, recently launched a spinoff show with active NBA player Paul George called Podcast P. This news is only vaguely hilarious to anyone who has closely watched George’s career — who at various points tried to publicly serve himself the nickname “Playoff P” and, later, “Pandemic P.” As an Oklahoma City Thunder fan, I can only groan.

➽ Like poetry and nature sounds? Then you’re sure as hell gonna like Terra Firma.

➽ So this one’s a little unwieldy to describe. Tell Me About It, a new comedy project from Multitude, is a fictional game show hosted by a (fictional) eccentric billionaire who thinks that 1978’s Grease is the single most interesting thing of all time, and he has forced his (fictional) butler to usher (real) guest contestants through a competition in which they’re made to try to convince said billionaire of a thing that’s cooler than Grease. If any part of this sounds interesting at all to you, you’re probably going to like it.

➽ Quick correction for last week’s issue. Admissible: Shreds of Evidence is partly distributed by VPM, which is Virginia Public Media, not Vermont Public Media. Which, of course, I should’ve known, since the story literally takes place in Virginia. My goof.

What’s So Wrong About Human-Robot Romance?