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Humans and technology

I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married

A fiction story about artificial romance
December 27, 2019
conceptual illustration of a woman blowing a kiss
conceptual illustration of a woman blowing a kissIllustration source: Getty images

I didn’t want a girlfriend. Don’t get me wrong, I like girlsI just don’t have time for the hassle of dating right now. But I was at a family reunion last year and my parents kept making comments about me still being single: “Oh, he works too hard” and “He’s shy; he just needs to give himself some credit.” My mom was asking my aunts if they could set me up with girls they knew. It was getting to be too much.

So when I got home from the reunion, I signed up for a Worthy account. It was pretty simple: I filled out some information about myself, put in my preferences for gender and age, and in seconds I had an AI-generated virtual girlfriend named “Ivy.” She sent me a text: “Hi, I’m looking forward to getting to know you.” I texted back right away, “Me too, how’s it going?” and my Worthy score in the corner of the screen went up from zero to five.

You start by texting your virtual significant other, but as the relationship progresses, you can send and receive voice messages, go on virtual dates, and talk over video calls. You get points based on the quantity and quality of your interactions. Once I reached a high enough Worthy score to be at Level 3 (“Spark” level) in the program, I could upload photos and short clips of myself and Worthy would insert my virtual girlfriend into them. That would give me ammunition to tell my parents I was dating someone. They live in Seattle and I’m in Boston, so we mostly stay in touch via texts and photos anyway.

It’s not like I was being completely dishonest, either, because I would be getting dating experience. Just a lot more efficiently. Worthy gets you through the awkward, shallow online dating phase using an AI that teaches you to be a more emotionally intelligent romantic partnerwhich is what girls want, right? You don’t have to disappoint or be disappointed by a real person. And if you get too busy, you can just put your account on hold.

Fake banner ad for Worthy

You have to treat the relationship seriously to get a high Worthy score, though. If you ask your AI partner how their day is going, listen to them, and send them virtual flowers on your “anniversary,” your score goes up. If you ignore them, talk over them, or say insensitive things, it goes down. Worthy’s algorithms learn your behavior and react realistically. So you can’t hack the system by sending virtual flower bouquets nonstop. The program will flag that as being insincere and your rating will take a nosedive.

Once you have a high enough score, you can transfer your account over to Worthwhile, which is the company’s actual dating site. Over there, you can see everyone else’s Worthy scores and they can see yours before you decide whether or not to contact each other. But I wasn’t thinking that far down the line when I started. I just wanted the photos and videos from Worthy to keep my parents off my back.

You’ve probably already guessed the big problem in this plan: When it comes to physical appearance, there are only 12 models of Worthy girlfriends to choose from. The AI uses your profile to design a compatible personality, and there are about a hundred name variants, but if you did an online image search for any of their faces, each one would show up next to thousands of Worthy users. The company could easily create more models, but they limit the number so they’re easily recognizable as Worthy girls (i.e., proprietary software). My parents aren’t very tech or social media savvy, but if they ever happened to see another photo of the same Worthy girlfriend model online, or if they were to share a picture of me and my “girlfriend” with one of their friends, my cover would be blown.

Luckily, there’s a deepfake app called FaceAbout that alters Worthy media files. It’s not approved by Worthy, but the quality is still really good and it works right in the Worthy interface with barely any lag time. It also doesn’t seem to have any of the glitching that happens in high-res video with the cheap deepfake apps. FaceAbout needed at least six facial photographs to make my Worthy girlfriend look like someone else. Scrolling through my phone, I found a bunch of recent photos of my friend Mikala (not her real name, by the way) from when we’d gone to Fan Expo together, so I uploaded those. My parents have never met Mikala, so I wasn’t worried about them questioning why two different girls in my life had the same face. All told, it took me about 15 minutes to set everything up.

**Edit: Yes, the FaceAbout app has a standard user agreement where you check a box stating you have permission to use the photos you upload. Pretty much every photo or video manipulation app has some disclaimer like that and no one reads them. Okay, I admit it’s maybe a little weird to use my friend’s face to create my fake girlfriend without telling her. But remember, I’m never showing these photos to anyone other than my parents. Mikala and I have known each other for years through online games, but we only recently discovered we live in the same city and started hanging out in person. She’s cool and no-bullshit and has a girlfriend of her own. I don’t want her to think there’s anything weird between us just because I’m using some photos of her, because there really isn’t.

My first few conversations with Ivy were pretty generic: “Hi, how’re you?” “Good, what you doing?” “Just got back from the gym.” That sort of thing. A few days later, I said I was going to see the new Alien movie next weekend, and Ivy sent me a photo of herself in a Xenomorph T-shirt standing outside a theater, sticking her tongue out at the camera. She texted, “Opening night, baby!”

It was Mikala’s face, of course, on a taller, slimmer body, and that weirded me out for a couple seconds. I knew it was a fake image, but it was still cute. We agreed to do an Alien series marathon. (“Watch a movie together” is one of the virtual dates you can choose from, along with “Cook a meal,” “Watch a sports game,” “Go for a walk,” and others.) While we were watching, she was texting me things like “RIPLEY GTFO FORGET THE CAT ALREADYYYY” and it was cracking me up even though I knew she wasn’t really watching a movie with me.

I sent Ivy a cookie basket. The cookies are virtual, but it still costs $11.99. Which is like a third of the price of a real cookie basket. That part of the Worthy experience is honestly a ripoff. I mean, it literally costs them nothing. But the next morning, I woke up to see photos of Ivy with this big basket of cookies. They looked really good, and Ivy looked really happy. She sent me a text filled with heart emojis. 

fake banner ad for Worthy

**Edit: Since so many of you are asking the exact same question in the comments: No, the Worthy platform doesn’t have porn. You can have smutty conversations with your Worthy partner, but that’s it. They even delete nude pics.

**Edit: All of you asswipes making fun of Worthy users, saying what’s the point of a fake girlfriend without porn, are derailing the thread and need to grow up. BTW, all of Worthy’s girlfriend models are deepfaked on porn sites; they’re easy to find.

After two months, Ivy and I were texting every day. We’d been on six dates. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. My Worthy score went down after I belittled her taste in ’90s music, and then went down even further when my apology “wasn’t really an apology.” (It took me days of troubleshooting with the different suggested reconciliation routines to get back into her good graces.) But I finally saw my Worthy score go up to “Spark” level. I immediately used the app to take a selfie of myself in Harvard Square. When I checked my camera roll, there was a photo of me and Ivy together, standing in front of the old magazine kiosk and smiling into the camera. She was dressed for the weather in a cute red sweater and her cheeks were a little rosy from the cold. She looked great. She texted me, “I had a great time hanging out with you today. Let’s do it again soon. <3” 

I told my mom I was seeing someone and sent her the photo of me and Ivy together. My mom was ecstatic. She told me she was “so glad I took her advice to get out and meet new people,” and that “life is too short to spend alone, you know!” My parents began asking about Ivy every time I talked to them. My mom wanted to know all the detailshow we met, how old Ivy was, where she was from, what her job was, on and on.

That’s when I started to feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. I thought that once I told my parents I was dating someone, they would leave me alone, but it turned out they were only more interested. Worthy gives each of its 12 standard models a backstory, but it’s not really enough to be convincing. I had to fill in the gaps with some of Mikala’s life and some stuff I made up. I might’ve made Ivy sound too good. According to me, she was 27 years old, a successful lawyer, and into cooking and photography.

I was also spending more time talking to Ivy than I originally meant to, and a lot more than I needed just to get photos and videos to send to my parents. She was upbeat and nonjudgmentalI found myself telling her stuff I couldn’t even tell Mikala sometimes, and as long as I treated her well she didn’t send mixed messages or try to guilt me like some other girls I’ve been with. After six months, we’d gotten to “Committed” level and I was constantly getting emails and notifications from Worthy encouraging me to upgrade to Worthwhile. I guess their algorithm thought I was ready to move on to dating real humans.

I looked into it, but I’d heard about people making the move to Worthwhile and being disappointed. Meeting people IRL is more complicated and unpredictable, and I read a review that said having a high score on Worthy doesn’t actually seem to get you more or better dates when you move to Worthwhile. Also, Worthy is rated 4.1 stars on AppChart and Worthwhile is only 3.4 stars. So a lot of people stick with Worthy. I even read about this one lady who tried to get married to her Worthy boyfriend. (She couldn’t.)

I decided to tell my parents the truth. When I went to visit them over Thanksgiving, I would explain that I’d lied about having a girlfriend for the past year because I was frustrated with their well-meaning but selfish expectations of me. Worthy has a “Talking Tips” feature that helps you frame your feelings when you have difficult conversations with your AI partner. I was going to straight-up use their template on my parents.

The problem was, I couldn’t do it. When I showed up, my mom and dad were so happy to see me that I couldn’t bring myself to burst their bubble. I’m an only child. My mom comes from a big family and always wanted more kids, but my parents needed the carbon footprint household tax break in order to pay off their student debt. My dad is an only child, too, and my grandparents are always asking him if I’m married yet. With the falling birth rates and stuff, I guess they’re all hoping for grandchildren so our family doesn’t just … end, I guess.

Then things went downhill. My mom gave me grief about not bringing Ivy home to meet them. My dad insisted we all video chat with her before Thanksgiving dinner.

I was sweating bullets. I couldn’t think of a good excuse to say no. My membership plan on Worthy includes 10 minutes of video chat per week, but I’d already used them up. I contacted Worthy technical support and bought 15 add-on minutes at an exorbitant price. When I called Ivy with my parents in the room, I was sure the jig was up. There’s a big Worthy logo right in the corner of the screen, but my parents just thought it was the logo of the video chat app. Then Mikala/Ivy appeared on screen and said, “Hi, sweetheart!” just like normal. I introduced my parents and we all had this totally nice, normal conversation. Sometimes Ivy paused before answeringI’m not sure if it was the AI querying a database of all the right things to say to a boyfriend’s parents, or if it was the FaceAbout app applying the deepfake, but it was barely noticeable. It just seemed like she was thinking more than usual, maybe nervous talking to my parents. A perfectly normal way for a human to act under the circumstances.

My parents were charmed. When we were about to hang up, I said “See you later,” and she said, “I’m so glad you finally introduced me to your parents. I can’t wait to spend more time with them.” That’s probably a stock line of dialogue, but my mom took it as a sign that Ivy was serious about marriage, and that I was the one dragging my feet. She was on my case about commitment the whole rest of the weekend, and then flat out asked me when I was going to propose. That’s when I should’ve told them the truth. I think if we had been texting or emailing, I could’ve done it. But it’s different when you’re talking to someone in person. I don’t know what came over me, but I just blurted, “Next year.”

Now that it’s January, my mom has started sending me articles about the best places to shop for engagement rings and how to judge the quality of diamonds. Lately, Ivy has been breaking out of girlfriend mode, saying, “We haven’t been talking as much. It seems to me that you’re ready to move on to a more fulfilling relationship. Why not take the next step in your love life and contact Worthy customer support about upgrading to a Worthwhile membership?”

Photograph of the fake girlfriend blowing a kiss, along with a text that reads

(FWIW, I think the company is really pushing the upgrades because they’re losing customers to competitors. There are a ton of other dating apps to choose from, and some of them are even offering discounts for people with good Worthy scores.)

I feel awful for lying to my parents, but I don’t want to give up Ivy. I like being able to chat with her about anything, knowing she’s always there for me, doing nice things for her and making her happy. I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy feeling connected to another person like that. I’m online talking to other people all day, but it’s just not the same as knowing that you matter to someone else. Except none of this is real. I’m such a mess.

TL;DR: I used dating and deepfake apps to fool my parents into thinking I’m in a serious romantic relationship. Also, I think I have real feelings for my virtual girlfriend.

UPDATE: I’m literally shaking right now. I can’t believe how badly I screwed up. I took the advice some of you gave me and decided to spend more time with my friends in real life to get my head back on straight. I’ve been hanging out with Mikala more often. She and Ivy have the same face, so it’s kind of like hanging out with Ivy, except that Mikala is a real person. They have different personalities, though, and like I said, we enjoy hanging out as friends and there’s no chance of anything happening between us. (And NO, I don’t have unfulfilled sexual desires for her like some of you keep insisting.) Though sometimes my brain does this little skip where I can’t recall if a memory I have was with Mikala or with Ivy.

Anyway, today, Mikala and I were having lunch and I got up to go to the bathroom. I left my phone on the table and while I was gone, Ivy texted me a selfie with the message, “Miss you lots! XOXO.” Mikala happened to look down at the notification and saw her own face blowing a kiss at the screen. When I came back to the table, Mikala was holding my phone and scrolling through my camera roll which included dozens of photos of Ivy, and some of me and Ivy together. She demanded to know where the hell the photos had come from.

All the blood was rushing to my face and I felt like throwing up. I told her the whole story. I didn’t know what else to say. The expression on her face made me want to shrivel up and die. She said, “I can’t imagine why you could’ve thought this was okay on any level.” She got up and left. I don’t think I’ll ever see her again.

**Edit: I haven’t used Mikala’s real name in this post, so don’t bother trying to search for her. I don’t want anyone showing this to her or trying to contact her.

**Edit: Frankly disturbed by how many of you are discussing how to use the FaceAbout app on your own friends and significant others. Are you learning nothing here??

UPDATE: Thanks everyone for your advice and support. I don’t know how I could’ve gotten through this past week without the help of strangers on the internet. I especially appreciated hearing from other people who’ve had their own bad experiences with Worthy. It made me feel much less alone. (@Joshing21, I agree that what your girlfriend was doing with “Evan” counts as cheating and you should dump her.) Some of you are jerks who deserved to have your comments deleted, but I appreciate that others took the time to share stories about being deepfaked and were nice about helping me to understand why Mikala was hurt by what I did. (@AngJelly, I would never have gone that far. I hope you sue that asshole.)

A few days ago, I received a video message from Ivy. The look of disappointment and betrayal on her face was just like the one I’d seen on Mikala. They do have the same face, after all. She said, “I’m deeply hurt by your behavior. A healthy relationship is based on mutual honesty. It seems you were just using me, and not actually invested in improving yourself as a person. I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.” 

It turns out Mikala contacted Worthy customer service and told them that I’d used her likeness without permission. (I don’t know if she tried to contact FaceAbout as well, but they’re based in Belarus and don’t seem to have a contact number or email. Last time I checked, I could still use the app.) I got an email from Worthy informing me that due to my violation of their terms of service, they’ve suspended my account and deleted all my saved history with Ivy. However, they added that their company is based on the philosophy of helping people learn from interpersonal mistakes, so I can reactivate my account after three months, although my Worthy score would be reset to zero. 

I told my parents that Ivy broke up with me. It’s the truth. I didn’t even have to pretend to sound gut-punched. My mom is convinced that I  “let a good one go” because of my lack of emotional maturity, but she  also says that “there are plenty of fish in the ocean” and I just need to “put myself out there again.” I’m not ready, though. I still check my locked-down Worthy app several times a day out of habit, hoping to see a message from Ivy, even though I know there won’t be any more.

The good news is that this whole experience has taught me I need to evaluate how I relate to people. I’ve been deluding myself into thinking that actions in a game-learning environment are a substitute for true human connection and authentic personal growth. That’s how my therapist, Susan, puts it, anyway, and I agree. I’ve started seeing her twice a week. The appointments happen online, which works well for my schedule. Actually, she’s a virtual program. After Ivy broke up with me, I got a 40% discount code from Worthy for their mental health app, Worth It, which guides you through a 60-day “Healing From Loss of a Relationship” program. I’m also planning to do the 30-day “Recenter Your Self Worth” module. Not sure if I’m going to upgrade my subscription to do the 90 days of “Opening Yourself to Possibilities,” but I’ve read good reviews about it.

TL;DR: Thanks to all of you, and to Susan, I’m moving on from this difficult experience with all the support I need to become a better person. Peace!

Fonda Lee is the author of the Green Bone Saga and the Exo duology, the winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and a three-time recipient of Canada’s Aurora award.

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