Opinion | Checkmate and AI: Reality is becoming dystopian, but we might not know it

Opinion by Chunhua Yu
April 9, 2023, 8:27 p.m.

In the “Black Mirror” episode “Hang the DJ”, love seekers find themselves in many simulated worlds, where each world calculates the probability of them falling in love with someone they meet in the virtual world if they choose to break out of the world. In another episode, “Nosedive” that satirizes social media use, people rank each other and can immediately see the scores of others when they first meet. The two episodes seem absurdly dystopian, but a combination of the two episodes — Checkmate — has already announced its arrival in our world.

Checkmate is a new product of the popular college dating app, the Marriage Pact, and it uses algorithms to calculate the matching score between two individuals. Like participating in the Marriage Pact, people would first answer some questions that reveal some parts of their personality and values, then scan someone, and AI would calculate their “long-term odds together,” as it claims. Since before the Marriage Pact season in 2022, the company has been experimenting with Checkmate as one of the lab projects, along with “Soulmate Radar” (which is an app that sends users notifications when the potential love of their life passes by). 

I first joined the beta to help develop Checkmate over the summer. Every day, I received an email from Marriage Pact with a “question of the day” — the kind of questions that would appear on the Marriage Pact questionnaire. At first, I found the questions entertaining, and the notification I received at the same time in the morning even became my source of refuge, something that I would click into to remind myself that my inbox has fun emails too — it’s not all deadlines and ads. A few months later, however, the questions bored me. The same, random questions about my preferences no longer seemed to show me more about myself, and even the graph showing a distribution of responses ceased bringing me the surprise of knowing whether I was the outlier. 

If Checkmate existed in a movie, we as reviewers would relentlessly condemn its stupidity and naivety, another example of the dystopian imagination, just like “Coach” from “Hang the DJ” and “Rate Me” from “Nosedive.” However, when a product like Checkmate entered our world and our campus at Stanford immediately after Marriage Pact matches were released in the fall, the zeal could not hide itself. In early December, many Stanford students downloaded the app and asked more of their friends to answer questions so they could see each other’s scores. 

The excitement was contradictory: while we debated AI ethics, envisioned the future of AI in all aspects and mocked the impossibility of products like Checkmate, we became so drawn to it. During early December, Checkmate was the topic of conversations and was often the first thing students checked when seeing their friends — to see whether the score is reflective of their friendships and whether it went up after answering more questions. I never got a very high score with anyone, but there were people who had multiple 99.9% matches. So what do these scores say about us? How did they make us feel? How are they changing our interactions with friends and new people?

I even got a 2% match with a friend, so what does the score say about our compatibility in real life? As much as each of us understood the lack of depth in each number, we became dependent on it. Each of us tried to give meaning to the numbers, to add depth and reasons behind the final result that seemed telling about our relationships, frantically finding explanations for each score. They were just numbers, yet we wanted them to define us. The power in the simplicity of numbers is seductive. The numbers could have been completely random, yet we tried so hard to make sense of them and force stories onto them. 

Another common concern around the use of technology and AI in something uniquely human (marriage, friendships, etc.) is privacy. While Marriage Pact has not leaked any private data yet, Checkmate poses another threat to privacy — something each user must have noticed but not discussed. When we use the app, we also have access to matching scores with our friends and everyone else they matched with, whether we have added the third person or not. I could not only see how I matched with my friends but can also compare our score with my friends’ other scores. We basically get an outsider peek at other relationships that we may otherwise not be aware of, although none asked for this disclosure. 

The craze around Checkmate did not last long. Before finals season of fall quarter, Checkmate soon disappeared from the stage, now sitting quietly on our smartphone homescreens. Just a couple of days ago, I received a notification telling me that “Leslie just joined Checkmate! Scan to see your compatibility with her. [eye emoji].” The eye emoji is ironic: if we scan the score, many other users will receive a notification, saying that I scored 95% with Leslie. Most would be entertained, while some would be jealous that they did not get an equally high score. Either way, we are being watched

No one talks about Checkmate anymore, as if it is a transient dream that came and left. But when we wake up from the dream, we realize that it had been a nightmare all along. Checkmate is not forgotten, but left behind in our memories as ChatGPT, Bing, and other products of artificial intelligence posed more alarming threats. We cannot deny that during the days that Checkmate was around, there was an unsettling fervor, one that we could not repress, and it reveals something about us.

Our response to the Checkmate app shows at least some things about us: first, no matter how many classes we take on AI ethics or how many dystopian movies we watch, we cannot resist the enticement of algorithms that turn large data and personal information into forms of conclusions about who we are and what our relationships look like. We are curious about ourselves, and we are curious about technology, which is why products like Checkmate can be a shortcut satisfying our desire for self-knowledge. Our interaction with Checkmate shows that one day we may easily repeat scenes in past dystopian imaginations without even realizing it. Our initial response to Checkmate, one characterized by zeal and fervor, is an alarming warning for our future reliance on AI. On the other hand, the quick outdatedness of Checkmate also shows that simple, misleading numbers are not enough to lure us. We are still hungry for novelty, excitement and new information. It is a part of our nature.

What has been imagined by “Black Mirror” and discussed by us is already here, but we have not been talking enough about it. What if one day a biomedical company invents a happiness-inducing drug that becomes prevalent, just like soma in “Brave New World”? What if virtual amusement parks where humans interact with robots (violently and dangerously) becomes the new destination for fun, just like what happens in “Westworld”? We might not even realize that writer Aldous Huxley warned us against soma decades before when he discusses happiness in his dystopian novel, and that Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan imagined and feared “Westworld,” a world where violent delights have violent ends. Then, it will be too late to realize that we are trapped.

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