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08 February 2017

Friendships, romance, humanity: mind-reading tech will kill it all

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One of life’s great joys is that you never quite know quite how badly it’s going. Sure, you may suspect your interactions with other people are a disaster. That you are repeatedly deemed tedious, dim, gauche, a dire writer, dreadful in bed, catastrophic in the kitchen. Perhaps you even have some sort of proof: no job offer, no follow-up date, snubs on the street, even direct critique; I write as someone Russell Crowe once called an illiterate plonker (he has since deleted the tweet, but the pain still lingers).

But we survive by questioning such evidence. It wasn’t personal, we kid ourselves. Perhaps their email is down. Maybe Russell was just having a bad day. I’m sure it looked fine from the back.

Well, enjoy this bliss while you can. For soon we will know exactly how everyone else feels about us – all the time. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US have developed a program that enables the live-tracking of emotions. They rigged up people while regaling them with moderately interesting anecdotes. So far, the responses are graded “positive” or “negative”. But not for long. “Our next step,” said Tuka al-Hanai, the study’s co-author, “is to improve the algorithm so that it is more accurate at calling out boring, tense and excited moments.”

What will happen, she threatened, is that we’ll all have this sort of software running on smartphone watches, and no one will be able to opt out. “Developing technology that can take the pulse of human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve how we communicate with each other.” Then comes the horror-movie pitch: “Imagine if, at the end of a conversation, you could rewind it and see the moments when the people around you felt the most anxious.”

Much as I wouldn’t want to publicly wish ill on anyone, it’s hard not to hope this research encounters some obstacles. What for Hanai is a “personal social coach” will surely for many others be an antisocial bully, a deliverer of hard truths you can’t slap back. Human interaction – even human survival – relies on silence. Once this software comes in, I give us 20 years. Friendships will struggle; romance is doomed. The only ones still smiling will be the sex robots.

Returning the favour

If you’re about to become a parent and you feel a bit underprepared, there are many courses you can chuck cash at. There are National Childbirth Trust sessions, first-aid classes, hypno-birthing primers, and an awful lot of yoga. I’ve done the first of these and enrolled on the second, and found the former at least very useful. Perhaps one day something similar will be available for those who anticipate caring for their parents, as government minister David Mowat last week urged more of us to do. After all, looking after an elderly relative can be just as rewarding – and, I’d hazard, less well-supported and more challenging – than caring for a child.

Yet the take-up for such courses might remain slack. When it comes to elderly care, many people seem to want to remain underprepared. Ignorance isn’t just bliss: it’s essential, if you want to dodge responsibility.

The award for most normal …

In the age of the selfie, there is something really endearing about the annual Oscar nominees’ class photo. The gawping and mugging, the awkwardness and formality. Those long net curtains in the background. The massive gold bloke in the middle.

It’s humanising because it puts incredibly famous people in positions with which we’re all familiar. It also lines them up next to people less genetically blessed, and somehow, their good looks are brought down a notch or two by the preponderance of normal. Maybe the ceremony itself should follow suit. People might not balk about A-listers being out of touch if the Oscars played out like speech day.

 

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