This article is part of a series about season four of Black Mirror, in which Futurism considers the technology pivotal to each episode and evaluates how close we are to having it. Please note that this article contains mild spoilers. Season four of Black Mirror is now available on Netflix.
A 20-something man walks into a restaurant and takes a seat at an empty table. A few minutes later, a young woman enters. She surveys the room, not quite knowing who she’s looking for. She turns to a circular device in her hand, “How will I know who he is?” she asks it. A robotic voice responds: “This is him,” and what appears to be a livestream of the man’s face shows up on the device. She comes to the table; he gets up awkwardly, sending silverware skittering noisily across the floor. They introduce themselves — Frank. Amy.
Their rapport is quick and flirtatious, albeit a bit nervous, stilted. A few hours later, the two part ways. Later, Amy debriefs her experience with her device. “Even your reaction to a brief encounter provides the system with valuable information,” the voice says. Frank does the same, and his device tells him: “Your ultimate compatible other has not yet been selected. The System gains insight as each participant progresses through numerous relationships and uses the gathered data to eventually select an ultimate compatible other.” It finds your perfect match in 99.8 percent of cases, it says.
Today, it’s commonplace to use websites and apps to aid the search for “the one.” The algorithms that drive these tools are extremely sophisticated and incorporate a staggering amount of information about each user.
Granted, dating apps today are not quite as sophisticated as The System, which Frank and Amy use in the “Hang the DJ” episode of Black Mirror. They don’t do that much with the feedback you give the app. Certainly, none would be so bold as to suggest that it could find your “perfect match.”
It’s easy to envision a not-so-distant future in which dating apps take on even more information. Whether that will get you closer to your “ultimate compatible other,” however, is more difficult to predict.
About 15 percent of Americans use dating apps, according to a 2016 Pew survey (surveys from online dating companies themselves, unsurprisingly, cite much higher numbers, like 40 percent of Americans and 70 percent of single people). Their popularity hinges on their accessibility on smartphones, especially for young adults, and because online dating has largely lost its stigma. In 2017, it’s not strange to find a significant other online or to know someone who has. That fact alone is changing the fabric of American society by helping us meet people further outside our standard friend group.
Apps have increasingly specific focuses. The logic is sound: Vet out undesirables by ensuring you have shared interests or values with everyone in the selection pool (and avoid dating-app fatigue, an increasingly real phenomenon as we’re constantly bombarded with potential matches).
We now have apps based on religion and nationality. There are apps for farmers, apps for elite young professionals, apps in which women are in control, and apps for those looking for three-ways. And for everything in between, well, there are apps for that too.
No matter how specific they are, these apps need to collect some data on you to function. With a quick tap to grant them access to your Facebook page, combined with your behavior on the app itself, these companies have a truly staggering amount of information about each user. In September, a Tinder user and reporter for The Guardian published an article about her quest to figure out just what kind of data the company had on her. The answer was, she admitted, more than she had bargained for:
Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook “likes,” links to where my Instagram photos would have been had I not previously deleted the associated account, my education, the age-rank of men I was interested in, how many Facebook friends I had, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened … the list goes on.
The realization that dating apps track our information is probably not shocking. We live in an age in which many of us can’t stay away from the internet, yet we know full well that every intimate Google search, every flip through the photos of an ex’s new partner, is meticulously documented and far from private.
But as the market for dating apps fills up and they get even more laser-focused, the types of information these companies gather will likely become even more invasive. Pretty soon, things might get kind of weird.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about how The System works in “Hang the DJ,” it’s that it relies on user feedback to select each person’s “perfect match.” For most dating apps in use today, feedback doesn’t make much of a difference. But it’s not hard to imagine an app that incorporates your biometric data — say, your blood pressure and heart rate, which can indicate sexual arousal. It would only take a Fitbit, plus the right algorithm, to do that. Or how about a smartwatch that combines biometric data with information from your text and verbal conversations to determine how well a date went? Or a service that determines your chemistry with a potential match by considering your genetic code?
“I can see a day where people take a swab of their cheek to get a DNA-level analysis of what they would be attracted to,” Grant Langston, the CEO of eHarmony, told The Star earlier this year. “There’s a biological component to all of this that is largely unexplored and it would make this business very different.”
A lot of this is already starting to happen. One dating app, called Once, integrates with a user’s Fitbit or Android Wear to detect her heart rate when she sees the photo of her daily match to tell instantly if she’s attracted. A few companies already incorporate users’ genomic information to offer them matches with whom they would have the best chemistry. Some trawl your digital presence to offer potential matches a detailed breakdown of your personality.
Though you could find online dating services that take all this into account, it’s not yet widespread. But it could all change fast. After all, tracking users’ location via smartphone was unheard of until a few trailblazers (most notably Grindr) showed everyone how useful the feature can be.
New technology promises to make the process of finding a date even weirder — a newly launched dating app called FlirtAR enables users to point their phones at the faces of the casual passers-by to see if they’re on the site. One of Tinder’s co-founders told Digital Trends that dating via virtual reality could “become a real interesting thing” in two to five years. And once we all start implanting devices in our brains, well, there’s no telling how much data these dating services could access.
Despite the deluge of user data and increasingly sophisticated algorithms, can the dating apps of the future actually help more people find love? Some experts are skeptical. “I don’t think this kind of stuff [big data and machine learning] will actually change dating, nor will it be adopted,” Christian Rudder, a co-founder of dating site OKCupid and author of the book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), tells Futurism.
There’s no such thing as a perfect match, Rudder continues — most of the time people have no idea what they want, and certainly no algorithm does, either. “With more information, like biometrics, ‘better’ matches would theoretically be possible, but even so, that would just change the set of people that the individual, the ultimate decider, chooses from. It doesn’t really change anything about the underlying process.”
Even if the concept of a “perfect match” is a lie, someone great might still be out there. And maybe he or she is even on a dating app.