Algorithms for Love: Japan Will Soon Launch an AI Dating Service

Every year for the last 13 years, Japan’s population has shrunk. The country has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and not enough babies are being born to replace an aging population; Japan also has the highest proportion of people over 65 of any country in the world.

The reasons for the baby bust aren’t totally clear, but some contributing factors could include economic insecurity, women prioritizing their careers over raising a family, and strict immigration standards that let in few potential child-bearing foreigners. In 2019 just 864,000 babies were born in Japan, a 5.9 percent drop from the previous year, which was already a historic low.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end there; young people in Japan seem to have lost interest not only in babies, but in marriage (marriages fell from 800,000 in 2000 to 600,000 last year), dating, and even sex.

The Japanese government is concerned, to put it lightly, and with good reason—the country’s economy and the well-being of its people are at stake. Last week Japan’s Cabinet Office announced it’s putting 2 billion yen ($19.2 million) towards an initiative it hopes will give a much-needed boost to dating, marriage, sex, and babies: artificially intelligent matchmaking.

If the idea of the government being involved in your love life sounds strange, it’s actually not a new thing in Japan. The country is divided into 47 prefectures—like small states—and about 25 of these already offer some kind of matchmaking service for residents. They use rudimentary guidelines like age, income, and education to show singles a list of potential viable romantic partners—a state-run Tinder, if you will.

But as anyone who’s ever gone on a date, been in a relationship, or interacted with another human in any vaguely romantic way knows, love isn’t as straightforward as matching up on age or income lines—there’s a lot more to making it work than that.

Personality is key. We want someone who’ll not only put up with us, but will find our particular quirks endearing. These deeper, nuanced personality traits are hard to capture in an algorithm—but that’s more or less what the new Japanese matchmaking services will be going for. Users will answer questions on topics related to their interests and values, and an algorithm will then dredge up what it deems to be compatible matches.

Several dating apps already use AI. OKCupid uses machine learning both to “connect people” and as a “community improvement tool.” Tinder uses AI to verify user photos and filter offensive content. And the algorithm in any app that involves swiping right or left assigns each user a “value” of sorts based on how many people “like” him or her, and uses that value to determine the order in which to display potential matches based on their “value.”

Yes, the whole thing is fairly dreadful. But on some level, it’s working—in the US, online dating is now the number one way couples meet.

Let’s hope similar statistics will soon be coming out of Japan. The country’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research projects that at current birth rates, its population will fall from 127 million in 2015 to 88 million by 2065. For comparison’s sake, the US population is expected to grow by 81 million over a similar period of time, despite fertility rates here being at their own historic lows too (it’s also relevant to note here that the US has a population more than two and a half times that of Japan).

Love is complicated, and bringing algorithms into the picture doesn’t make it much easier—anyone who’s used a dating app knows that. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Japan seems to be in desperate times. With AI cracking one problem after another, deploying it to help foster some romance in a place where romance is sorely needed may not be the worst idea.

Image Credit: The Pokemon Company

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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