Roger and Vonita Byous were surprised when an anniversary card from their son arrived in the mail. They were even more surprised by the unrecognizable handwriting inside.
"I just started wondering, 'Whaaat?' " said Roger, 73. "It didn't look quite right, but we couldn't figure out why."
The Somerset, Kentucky, couple later learned that their son hadn't picked up the pen that scripted his heartfelt congratulations on 48 years of wedded bliss.
A robot had.
"It wasn't exactly a personal touch," Roger said, but "we're glad he remembered us."
Digitization has long reached deep into people's lives: Family photos are in the cloud. Mom's recipes are indexed on an app. Breakups can arrive overnight, via text.
Now technology is being deployed to try to replicate a human touch, as a growing number of consumers turn to pen-wielding robots that can mimic the loops and patterns of the human hand.
These robot-scribed cards and letters are testing the proposition that machines can generate the intimacy of a handwritten note. Some services include smudges and ink blots in their mailings. Others program the robots to be imprecise — varying the pressure on the pens, for example, or inconsistently sizing characters and spacing — to make the writing appear believably human.
At Handwrytten, a fast-growing service in Phoenix, robots are outfitted with Pilot G2 pens in blue ink because, founder David Wachs says, it's "more realistic-looking" than black. The pens also offer an advantage over even the most sophisticated printouts: the telltale imprint they leave on paper.
But the results can be clumsy, even unsettling. Critics bristle at the idea of outsourcing personal correspondence, saying it renders it meaningless. And they see it as one more example of how technology is being used to fake authenticity, even if it does not rise to the level of "deepfakes" or other digital manipulation.
"Having a robot write for you — it's a rather clever business plan, but it seems like a complete betrayal," said Ellen Handler Spitz, a senior lecturer in humanities at Yale University. "Handwritten notes are special precisely because they are intimate, because a part of your body is touching the paper, creating a personal connection."
When the Byouses finally asked their son, Shanan, about the mysterious cursive on their card, he told them that he used theHandwrytten app because it was cheaper — and easier — than going to the store, picking out a card and paying for postage. Plus, he said, he liked that he could schedule it ahead of time.
"To me, it's the same, whether a robot writes it or I do," said Shanan, 47. "What matters is that I was thinking of them."
Two weeks after their anniversary, another robot-written card arrived. This one wished his mother a happy birthday.
The robots are running nonstop at Wachs' Phoenix warehouse, scribbling letters to Grandma, thank-you notes and, these days, holiday cards. Wachs used to make his living blasting millions of targeted text messages for corporate clients, until he became convinced there was a better way to get noticed.
"When you receive 200 emails a day, plus tweets and text messages, none of it stands out anymore unless it's handwritten," he said. "It's become that much harder to get someone's attention."
Today, Wachs has 80 robots, and demand is so brisk that he builds two to three more each week to keep pace with 100,000 pieces of correspondence that go out monthly.
"We started with a basic idea: to figure out how to make sending a handwritten note as easy as sending a text message or email," said Wachs, who founded Handwrytten in 2014 after selling his mobile marketing agency.
His earliest clients included religious groups urging inmates to find salvation in Jesus, and grown children checking in with mom and dad. As business grew, his clientele extended to include luxury retailers, mortgage brokers, car manufacturers and nonprofit groups that pay about $3 per card.
The holidays are particularly busy, with December accounting for about 15% of the year's sales. Wachs buys pens in packs of 1,452 and Forever stamps in spools of 10,000. Annual revenue, in the millions, is on track to triple this year.
In-house graphic designers create the company's cards. Handwrytten offers about 20 fonts with names like Executive Adam (allcaps and angular) and Loopy Ruthie (cursive and rounded).
Customers also can have their own handwriting replicated, for $1,000, by submitting multiple samples that include six versions of the alphabet and nearly a dozen nonsensical sentences like, "Did the keynote pharaoh drop a shoe in Cuba?" They can also add a real signature (for a one-time fee of $150), as well as foreign characters, hearts and smiley faces. The company has made about 60 custom fonts — mostly for politicians and business executives.
Wachs, who has degrees in computer science and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, makes the robots with a 3D printer and laser cutter. But, he says, they're slow. It takes four to five minutes to write a typical holiday card, though they offer at least one advantage: "They don't take breaks like humans do."
The robots work 24 hours a day and send Slack messages when they're running out of paper or ink. Attending to their needs can be tedious: Pens dry up after about 150 pages, and the machines hold only about 50 sheets at a time. Handwrytten also has 25 human employees, including mobile developers, software engineers and staffers who stuff envelopes. (Robots, though, do the sealing and stamping.)
The company is among a growing number of card-writing services, each with its own spin. Felt in Telluride, Colorado, gives customers the option to write cards themselves using a finger or stylus on their phone screens. New Yorkbased Postable allows users to schedule a year's worth of birthday and anniversary cards. Other services take a decidedly old-school approach by hiring actual humans to write thousands of notes a week.
"As the world becomes more automated, our products become that much more effective," said Anatoliy Birger, director of sales for Letter Friend, which typically charges $4 to $5 per human-written card. "We are filling a real need."
Sheldon Yellen, 61, chief executive of Belfor Holdings, a Michigan-based company that offers disaster recovery services, writes well over 12,000 cards each year to his employees — and has no intention of stopping.
Yellen began the tradition 30 years ago, when he had a staff of 19. But as the payroll has swelled to thousands, he has fine-tuned his system for organizing and mailing cards. His assistants keep a suitcase filled with cards and pre-addressed envelopes on his private plane. He flies at least three days a week, he said, and uses a blue gel pen towrite about 150 cards on each leg. When fatigue sets in, he does wrist rolls and finger stretches.
"Every time I get a few free minutes, I handwrite a card," Yellen said. In all, he sends 9,200 birthday cards a year, plus a few thousand notes to say thank you, congratulations or get well soon.
"Doing this has helped build a culture of compassion, family and respect," he said. Last year, on his 60th birthday, employees filled his office with 8,000 birthday cards.
Lately, though, he has been receiving letters from card-writing services, asking him for his business. He writes back to each one — by hand. "I tell them, 'Thank you so much,' " he said. " 'However, I am still committed to personally handwriting my own cards.' "