At last, boyfriends who don't talk about sex all the time

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SCHOOLGIRLS WHO can't get a date - or maybe don't like the boys on offer - should not despair: virtual dating has arrived. Soon, girls will be able to choose from a range of boys, all able to converse beyond a grunt and who won't insist on talking about sex, alcohol or drugs.

Best of all, they can alwaysswitch them off at the end of the evening.

Created by scientists from Durham University, the program is called GirLand and contains artificial intelligence modules, meaning it can hold a conversation via the keyboard. "We've been able to create something that people believe is intelligent - even if it isn't," said Professor Roberto Garigliano, managing director of 3F, the Durham company that developed the game.

Among the characters on offer are Edward, a rich boy at public school who likes hunting foxes; Danny, who is poor, comes from a broken home, and whose favourite object is his motorbike; and Paul, who likes being one of the lads and talks about football and cars.

"The girls who have been out with boys often try to tweak the parameters to create a nerd, then make fun of them," said Professor Garigliano. "But the younger girls are often more romantic, they talk about getting married and living together."

Because the game is aimed at girls aged between 11 and 16, the boys are not programmed to talk about sex, alcohol or drugs. "If the girls bring that up, the boys change the subject."

The game has several components, including a chat element in which the player asks question to find out more about a virtual character, a "dialogue" area in which the computer-generated characters ask questions of the player to build up a personality profile, and "date training" - a date simulation.

"You could see it as a safe environment for experimenting," said Professor Garigliano.