To his surprise, he got the money. Soon after, Low and Yeo launched the first iteration of the Aphrodite Project, timed for Valentine’s Day — one session for University of Waterloo students, and one for University of Toronto students. In line with Low’s vision, participants can select a range of gender identities, and the language is inclusive.
The Aphrodite Project uses a modified version of the Gale-Shapley algorithm, which is tied to the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics. After students complete a lengthy questionnaire about hobbies, values, and demographics, the algorithm pairs up participants based on their responses. The greater the similarities between two students’ answers, the greater their compatibility is rated.
The student response was overwhelming. Over 4,300 University of Waterloo students participated in the February session — over 10% of the entire student population. Thank-you emails trickled in with anecdotes about new connections. According to a small follow-up survey sent out 12 weeks after the first session, at least 44 students had begun a relationship with their match.
Low immediately began thinking about the next edition. This time, Low collaborated closely with psychology student Vivian Lai. He also consulted psychology professor Geoff MacDonald, who conducts research on attraction at the University of Toronto.
Questions covered long-distance relationships and political engagement. The aim was “a holistic understanding of the profile of a participant,” explained Lai.
The approach paid off. In July, 3,400 University of Waterloo students came back for a second round of matchmaking, called the “Pandemic Edition.”
However, the Project isn’t without controversy. In the questionnaire, participants can screen out potential matches based on their race and religion — something that made Pamela Wang, a first-year Systems Engineering student, uncomfortable. She decided not to participate.
“I think having a racial preference is kind of wack,” she said. “Why does that matter?”
In a recent online statement “On Inclusion and Hard Decisions,” the founders of the Aphrodite Project explained that for some of the students participating, these distinctions “do matter for a potential romantic partner.” The Aphrodite Project isn’t the first dating service to consider these demographics — Hinge and OkCupid are both dating apps that allow users to input racial preferences.
Lie said that she saw no issue with considering ethnic preferences. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad,” she said. “I just think it’s cool that they provide that choice for you and they don’t judge you for it.”
The Aphrodite Project has also sparked worries for some students about the quantity of personal data collected. But the Project doesn’t sell user data, explained Low, who has clarified their stance on data security in an online statement. Before humans look at the data, the responses are anonymized and stripped of identifying information.
Lai hopes the Aphrodite Project will prevent social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With COVID, it opens up new barriers,” she said. “But also new opportunities to connect.”