Patricia Walker knew her husband, Rob, was cheating.
All the signs were there. Suddenly he had new interests, was talking about subjects she had never even known he cared about, and was spending a lot of time chatting on the computer. But the last straw was when he suggested they go to a fondue restaurant that he had heard had a great dessert.
“This is a guy who before would eat a burger every night of his life if he could. No man suggests a fondue restaurant to his friend” Patricia pointed out. “That had to come from another woman, and a pretty persuasive one at that.”
Convinced that her husband had met someone on-line, she installed a hidden key logger on their home computer. It secretly recorded every keystroke her husband made and then saved a report to the hard drive for her to read later. Sure enough, it seemed to show that he had been having long chats with another woman on a wide range of subjects. Armed with the evidence, she confronted him.
That’s when the twist happened. He hadn’t been talking to another woman, at least the flesh and blood kind. He had been testing a new piece of software that builds virtual women and allows you to talk with them through your computer. While software that simulates on-line chatting has been around for years, it has been just recently that the technology has broken through to the point where it could now develop virtual humans with distinct personalities, histories, and memory. CyberPunk Software has been testing a new version of this technology in their software called Virtual Woman Millennium for an upcoming release, and Rob had been trying it out.
The log of their conversations had been so real sounding that Patricia had been convinced it was another woman. They had discussed their interests and dislikes, talked about their friends, and even chatted about that fondue restaurant.
Experts disagree on whether this upcoming technology is a good thing, and what the ethical consequences are. Howard Rasben of Pennsylvania Ethics in Media feels the implications are troublesome. “If this kind of software involves the forming of a significant relationship with another person outside of your committed one, it is cheating, plain and simple,” he said when interviewed. However, Dr. Sharon Cove of the Pran Center for Technology disagrees. “There’s no long term negative consequences to this,” she said. “The virtual relationship can’t be fulfilled physically, and he obviously isn’t going to leave his wife to run off with a virtual woman. I’d be more concerned if he was actively hiding it from his wife.”
The software developers at CyberPunk Software, who have been testing the new version of Virtual Woman with a handful of selected testers, aren’t surprised by the controversy the software has started, even in its pre-release form. “We knew we had something when people started e-mailing in asking for phone numbers of virtual women they had just talked to,” said Nancy, who heads up software testing for the company. “When we had to halt the testing briefly a month ago to update the code we got a lot of complaints. People felt as if they had been cut off from one of their best friends.”
In fact Dr. Cove, after trying out the software for herself, points out that talking to a virtual human that responds and challenges you realistically could bring increased sensitivity to a partner’s needs and actually increase the intimacy in the relationship. “As long as her husband isn’t playing it obsessively and brings what he learned from it back home to his wife, it’s a positive thing.”
Patricia Walker might tend to agree. “The Fondue restaurant was actually a really good idea, and the chocolate dessert was awesome. I told him if his virtual woman made any other suggestions like that he should pay attention.”
She soon might be able to ask for herself. CyberPunk Software is also testing a virtual man add on for their program.