The Circle AI player
The photo on the pillow behind the computer is the persona the AI is pretending to be, a young man named Max. Photo: Netflix

The Circle’s Experiment With an AI Player is Terrifying

Everyone has a guilty pleasure show they watch from time to time. Maybe it’s The Bachelor, Survivor, Love Island, or 90 Day Fiancé. (What’s yours?) Some love the Netflix reality show The Circle, and its sixth season is doing something both innovative and terrifying: welcoming an AI player.

The Premise of The Circle

The Circle
The Circle. Contestant Myles Reed from episode 601 of The Circle. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix/© 2024 Netflix, Inc.

Before explaining how the AI is integrated into the process, first, you need to understand how the show works. Described as Big Brother meets Catfish, The Circle puts players in separate apartments where they converse with one another entirely through a voice-enabled texting platform. Messages appear on big-screen TVs positioned all around the apartment. They set up profiles with limited information: a single photo, occupation, age, where they’re from, and a one- or two-sentence description about themselves. They don’t see anything more of one another, nor do they hear voices.

Players connect with one another through both group and private chats, participate in challenges, and rank one another. When someone is blocked, it means they leave the game. The catch is that some people play as themselves while others play as “catfish,” a person who purports to be someone they aren’t.

In the real world, catfish dupe people into friendships, online romantic relationships, or, in worst case scenarios, scams. But The Circle aims to use catfish in a positive way, encouraging people to open up in ways they might not otherwise, and connect with people with whom they might not have otherwise crossed paths. This could be an older man playing someone much younger, a gay man playing an attractive, straight young woman, or a woman playing as a man. Two blocked players once returned to play as a fabricated retired grandma while former boy bander Lance Bass’ real-life personal assistant once went in pretending to be him. In the end, it’s about breaking down misconceptions and proving that, as the old adage goes, it’s what’s inside that counts.

This season, however, introduces a tech-savvy twist that puts something else to the test: can an AI convince players that it’s human?

How The AI Player Was Created

The Circle AI player
The photo on the pillow behind the computer is the persona the AI is pretending to be, a young man named Max. Photo: Netflix

The AI, a computer sitting on a table in one of the apartments, created a persona from a simple prompt. Producers asked it to make a player it felt would do well in the game. Using the internet, the AI analyzed past seasons of The Circle to learn about players and how they interact, personalities, and different strategies that have been employed. As a computer, it can digest and dissect this information in record time, calculating the data to figure out what strategies and personality types work best in this game and which don’t. From there, it makes its player.

The AI’s decision: it would be a 26-year-old white male named Max who loves animals (naturally) and works as a veterinarian intern. His profile photo shows him smiling while holding a puppy, chosen because, as the voiceover advises, photos with dogs receive 38% more likes on social media. To be clear, “Max” does not actually exist.

The AI voiceover used as “Max,” also AI generated, states that he was created to “maximize his chances of building strong connections among the players.” He’s 26 because someone of that age “can leverage life experience and maturity while still playing youthful and having position flexibility.” Scared yet?

How Did “Max” (The AI) Do in The Game?

The Circle
The Circle. Contestant Brandon Baker from episode 602 of The Circle. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix/© 2024 Netflix, Inc.

In the first four episodes, “Max” used simple tactics to get further. Every interaction included kind banter, detailed hashtags, and avoidance of bad-mouthing anyone or openly choosing sides. Producers say “Max” came up with every detail it spoke without additional prompting. They would enter the message from the sender into the AI chat and ask “Max” how it would want to reply, then relay that reply. Naturally, the more “Max” conversed with others, the more it learned.

While engaging in conversations over text, viewers hear “Max” analyzing what it’s going to say in response based on data in the same fashion we hear the personal monologues of the human players as they strategize aloud. To fit in, “Max” frequently uses slang terminology like “sus” and ends every text reply with a fitting hashtag. Basically, the AI tries its best to emulate not only a human but the best type of human players will rank highly.

Showrunner and Executive Producer of The Circle Susan House assured in an interview with that they “really had no idea what [Max] was going to do.” She references a rap battle competition in one episode where “Max” created a short rap (in the same timeframe the other players got) that was good enough to elicit positive responses, but not too good to make people question it. “It was very real,” she says, adding that “Max’s” responses were not only more specific than they anticipated but also more current.

What’s more, “Max” understood context better than producers anticipated it would. In one conversation, for example, ally Lauren used a hashtag #BippityBoppityBesties and “Max” picked up that this was a reference to Cinderella. “Max” then went on to make a point to repeat this hashtag to Lauren in subsequent conversations because “when you repeat a connection or a joke with someone, that helps make them like you more.” (By now, you’re downright hiding under the covers, aren’t you?)

How Long Will The AI Last?

Myles on The Circle
The Circle. Contestant Myles Reed from episode 603 of The Circle. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix/© 2024 Netflix, Inc.

The most important question that fans can’t wait to have answered is if anyone will figure out which player is the AI, particularly Myles, the human player who also happens to be an AI engineer (intentional casting, of course). In the first set of episodes, the players were informed that one player was an AI, and they immediately started the detective work, dissecting every conversation. Suspicion fell on several players, but “Max” was not among them. It beautifully flew under the radar, no one ever considering “Max” to be anything but a “nice guy.” Mission accomplished…so far.

“Max” sat idly by while players questioned Steffi because a photo she shared of herself looked like a stock image. Kyle made people suspicious when his answers came across as being robotic and lacking emotion. Everyone got weird vibes from Paul, likely because it was actually his older sister Caress playing as him. But many misconstrued the disconnect as him/her being the AI. “Max” even participated in the conversation, leaving its own two cents as to what was suspicious about others. Apparently, the AI understands the art of deflection.

Niall O’Driscoll, Co-Executive Producer, told in the same interview that Max did have some shortcomings. “I feel like there was certain emotional nuances that…he just wasn’t very good at,” O’Driscoll notes. He cites flirting as an example along with the fact that Max was positive and nice to the point of being overwhelmingly so. In one conversation, Myles tried to pull “Max” in to help him question Paul. Instead of understanding what Myles wanted “him” to do, “Max” left a single message wishing Myles luck on his hunt for the AI, left the chat, and praised itself for avoiding “perilous discourse” and thus preserving its alliance through “passive disengagement.” AI isn’t quite there just yet.

Is This Reality Show Making a Serious Point?

The Circle AI
The Circle. An interior with AI/Max from episode 602 of The Circle. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix/© 2024 Netflix, Inc.

The Circle might be nothing more than a silly, mind-numbing guilty pleasure reality show. But this season and the experiment with AI is raising important questions. Our belief is that what separates humans from AI is the ability to feel emotion, rationalize, and understand nuances of conversation. But these happen to be the very things Max is making a concerted, albeit fabricated, effort to emulate. It’s doing its best to sound like a human so no one knows it isn’t. And it’s working.

This season of The Circle hasn’t fully played out yet, so it’s unclear if the group will successfully figure out that Max is the AI. If someone does, we can’t wait to find out what tips them off beyond simple process of elimination.

The worst-case scenario for not only the show, but also humanity (seriously!) is that the human players don’t identify “Max” at all and an AI goes on to win the cash prize. It’s unlikely to happen (fans would be up in arms if it did) but the farther “Max” gets, the creepier it becomes.

In its own clever, seemingly harmless way, The Circle’s latest season is demonstrating that AI is not as robotic or “inhuman” as we think. AI doesn’t have the capacity to display emotions nor does it possess a personality. But based on how the players absolutely adore “Max” and think he’s such a “great guy,” AI certainly has the potential to pretend to possess empathetic qualities. That’s some serious food for thought.