Debugging the love bug

If all romance is replication, then why does Katherine O’Chee still like it?

Art by Ann Ding

There is something intensely disturbing about angsty teenage poetry written by a robot, as a recent Google experiment reveals. In a strange revitalisation of the Turing Test in May this year, Google fed almost 3,000 romance novels into its artificial intelligence Google Brain as a way of teaching it the art of writing fiction.

The result was a haunting echo of Frankenstein’s monster: romantic clichés extracted from context and patched together, like a horror-movie surgeon rearranging your internal organs during operation.

In one of its creepiest attempts, the robot offered this:

“i want to talk to you.”

“i want to be with you.”

“i don’t want to be with you.”

i don’t want to be with you.

she didn’t want to be with him.

“Don’t write romance,” my English teacher remarked once. The whole genre is essentially replication: cookie-cutter plots, tropes and characters. Yet Google Brain basks in these tired archetypes. In its poetry, we see romance at its peak, compact with melodrama: the misunderstandings of refusing to speak your mind, the broken heart always lurking in the background.

But it also feels detached. Instead of emotion, we get the sensation of listening to a student repeating lines given to them by their teacher.

The robotic standardisation of love is intriguing. Online love poem generators such as romeosmagic.com are no more than algorithm-based tricks, most requiring you to answer absurd questions that they use to fill in the blanks of a pre-generated poem. In this impersonal attempt to personalise content, the user is left less in awe and more in spluttering laughter, because this is ‘magic’ you can take the absolute piss out of.

I head over to romeosmagic.com. The website URL itself is a groan-inducing spin on Shakespeare, clearly trying to participate in a much broader cultural narrative that homogenises and commercialises romantic love.

“Here is your free Romeo’s MagicTM love poem!” the automated pop-up cheerfully informs me, after I’ve sacrificed a portion of my soul answering its sixteen questions. I name the poem, “For my love, food”:

“I feel so full and hungry sometimes,

When I think of you each night and day,

And when I see you, I see icecream,

I love you more than words can say…

You’re so amazeballs! This love is infinite!

I can’t resist your tasty fillings, it’s true!

The Netflix and memes fade into shadows

I am absolutely crazy for you!

This awe-inspiring excitement is amazeballs my love,

And for you, food, I thank heaven above.

All my love, Katherine x”

Why would programs like romeosmagic exist, according to my English teacher? What is the literary value in replication and unoriginal thought? Year after year, the creative industry continues churning out novels, music and films completely based on romance, and year after year, we as consumers are hungry for more. If all romance is replication, then why I do I still enjoy it?

The answer perhaps starts with the initial observation that the word ‘romance’ is not exclusive to the 21st century digital age. Its well-recognised characteristics can be traced back far into the past.

For instance, sixth-century Arthurian ‘romance’ referred to vernacular literature written to entertain a mass audience, and today’s romantic culture treads in the same vulgar terrain of ‘low’ entertainment. The thrill of witnessing a love spectacle unfold – whether that be celebrity gossip or another of Hollywood’s predictable romance films – remains.

A parallel can also be drawn between modern romance and Romanticism, the 19th century literary, artistic and intellectual movement. Both revel in melodrama and see emotion as inseparable from our rational minds. Romance is that devilish voice who offers you a chance for happiness. It lets you dream, but only if you can bear with its onslaught of inner turmoil and wild bursts of emotion. Funnily enough, the “hysterical” fans of One Direction are a striking projection of Romantic poet Lord Byron’s female fans who frequently declared their love for him in fan mail.

Perhaps then, the replication of romance is less a profitable standardisation and more an unintended legacy left by centuries of paper crumbs. And perhaps, we are the hopeful pessimists trying to exit a culture of romance that we actually have no desire of exiting.

To enjoy romantic culture is to be trapped in a cycle that has spun guilty pleasures for 15 centuries. Robot love, it would seem, is only the most recent addition to this cycle.

We are not sinners for listening to the occasional One Direction tune or filling out the occasional online love poem. It’s programmed into our broader cultural memory to do so: to love and to want to love.