Another Lesson From Ashley Madison

Sep 16, 2015

  Every day it seems, there is some new revelation about the Ashley Madison hack.

Recent reports have targeted the organization’s use of chat bots and fake profiles. These “fembots,” as they are being called, were simple pre-fabricated computer scripts. The bots were designed to initiate an amorous exchange with male users in hopes of moving them into the ranks of paying customers.

So far the critical discussion concerning the use of these mechanisms has focused on fraud: Users were tricked into thinking they were talking to real women, when in fact they were just talking to a few lines of computer code.

But fraud is not the important issue here. It may be of interest to a few consumer groups and attorneys general, but the real story with Ashley Madison is much more interesting. What is truly revealing about these fembots is that they worked, and they worked even though the programming was rather simple, somewhat shoddy, and even stupid.

A significant number of male users found these chatterbots engaging -- so much so that they shared intimate secrets with them and, most importantly, took out the credit card in hopes of continuing the conversation. This is a brilliant if not perverse version of Alan Turing’s “Imitation Game,” the standard test for artificial intelligence.

What the experience with Ashley Madison demonstrates is that it does not take much in terms of social interaction for us to attribute intelligence and emotion to an artifact.

I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.