The vast majority of people's lives are inexorably intertwined with technology. Over the last 30 years, we've seen IRC and later the world wide web develop into a conduit for making friends and potentially romantic relationships, offering people the ability to find 'their tribe' and explore their sexual identities and preferences. Webcams, and later programs like Skype, have added a visual aspect to physically distant relationships. Social media means we get to know people before we ever meet them in the flesh and mobile phone apps like Tinder have enabled geo-location mapping, making it easier to take things from the screen to the sheets.
More recently, wearable technology, often embedded with AI, is being marketed as a way to find the right romantic partner and a tool that can be used to maintain and enhance relationships. Do we need it? Is it useful? What happens when we pair it with existing 'always on' public information like social media profiles? Does it mean the death of privacy?
Let's take a look at some specific examples of existing tech and how they might be affecting our approach to relationships, while also looking ahead to what's coming next.
Do We Really Need Wearable Tech to Help Us Meet The One?
The use of wearable tech enables us to attain continuous, real-time data on various health metrics such as our activity levels, sleep, and heart rate. Some see this as another set of variables to be factored into a dating profile, with research by dating site EHarmony last year predicting that 40% of online dating services will have incorporated smart tech by 2026, with this growing to 90% of online dating services by 2036. According to eHarmony, wearable tech could be utilized to determine someone's music tastes, purchases, photos, facial expressions, location, exercise patterns, and sleep patterns. They state:
Smart data will provide objective and unadulterated information. We’ll be able to use this data to make the online dating process much easier in every stage; application and proﬁle-building could be instantaneous, matching far more accurate, and the data on the two people’s compatibility could even be used to suggest great locations for shared experiences or mutually-compelling topics of conversation.
Their research is based on a number of assumptions that seem rather odd in the first instance. First off, they assume that we'd willingly share our personal physiological data with a stranger from a dating site in the hopes of meeting someone we are compatible with. It's one thing to ask participants to share their favorite books or hobbies, but to ask someone to share data like this that they don't control may seem more invasive. Secondly, they seem to suggest that we are able to gain greater insight into a person through their physiology that we wouldn't get through other means (such as having a real life conversation). Sure, through wearable tech, we might learn that despite their claim to run 5 miles at dawn every day, their sleep data suggests they sleep through their alarm each morning. It's likely that most dating profiles are written with some creative license, but surely the 'real' person becomes clear as you get to know them and not their bodily metrics? Thirdly, isn't there something slightly invasive about someone tracking your movements and other particulars as a means to get to know you? How do you relinquish access? This makes Facebook stalking seem rather tame.
Another company has taken this idea a step further. Canadian company Instant Chemistry has developed a DNA toolkit that uses personal genomics to determine compatibility for singles and couples. Through spitting into a test tube, the companies takes your saliva to test for complementary genes that they claim "have been associated with higher levels of physical attraction and long-term relationship success." Couples also complete extensive psychological testing online with the aim to equip couples with self-knowledge to combat relationship challenges. However, it's unclear at what point a couple would utilize the test tube or the quiz. Surely the paradox is that its introduction would require a certain level of intimacy (before you've determined if you are scientifically compatible) to broach the subject in the first place! And again, with such strong claims as "have been associated with" can we really trust that this research holds enough weight to make it valid and thus a useful tool for measuring the compatibility of a relationship partner? That seems like an important decision and one that you wouldn't want a potentially poor data reading to get in the way of.
DNA testing is great for preventative health, but I can't see it taking off as a matchmaking tool, there's something really off-putting about the notion of one's genetics as a 'make or break' criteria. Let's face it, with the exception of those without biological family, the information you'd glean from a chat about your family tree would provide pretty much the same information, no spitting involved.
Can Connected Tech Lead to Greater Relationship Harmony?
Inherent to the idea of tech being a key component of our relationships is the notion that thanks to this technology, we are always 'on', transmitting our thoughts, feelings, and biometrics. IoT and haptic technology (that which is designed to stimulate the sense of touch), is one means to achieve this.
Enterprises have been working on applications that involve wearable tech and human interaction for some time. A notable example is Project Underskin, smart digital tattoo concept from New Deal Design which would be implanted in your hand and interact with everything you touch. Its capabilities would include those of the typical RFID such as the ability to can unlock your front door but it could also trade data with a handshake, visualize your partner's health, mood or feelings and even glow a loving shade of red when you and your partner hold hands. It's only in design form at present, but it's entirely foreseeable that this could be taken from idea to fruition.
The idea of predictive analytics is appealing but the real ability to do this to any degree of accuracy is limited. For example, a ring by moodmetrics claims to "gives accurate and real-time data on the fluctuating stress levels". I tried the ring in Helsinki last year at a biohacking conference. Its makers claim it can be used to track and monitor changes in electrodermal activity but it cannot actually identify the emotion behind the physiological measurement it records. The wearable cannot, for example, distinguish between fear, anger, excitement, and joy. This leaves pretty big room for error if you are wanting to use wearable tech to monitor the moods of another as these are all big emotions with their own causes and appropriate responses!
Similarily, Researchers at the University of Southern California claim to have developed algorithms that could give couples the power to anticipate each other’s emotional states and adapt their behavior accordingly. The researchers recruited 34 college-age couples and fitted them with wrist and chest monitors that captured a day's worth of physiological data, including body temperature, heartbeat, and perspiration. The couples also carried special smartphones that listened in on their conversations during the day to look for changes in vocal tone and words suggestive of conflict (for example, the word "you" is often used to indicate blame).
In order to detect intra-couple conflict, the researchers developed algorithms to assess whether any conflict was present among couples. These algorithms pulled together data from various sources including wearables, mobile phones, and physiological signals (or bio-signals) to assess couples’ emotional states. Data collected included body temperature, heart activity, sweat, audio recordings, assessment of language content and vocal intensity. They claim the algorithm analyzing this data has proved to be up to 86% accurate in its ability to detect conflict episodes.
The authors' hope to extend the captured data in the future to include sun exposure, time spent online, and eating patterns, with researchers hoping the technology could be utilized to prevent conflict. This is actually the most interesting part of the research, the potential intersection between environment and physiology. But again, it's hardly earth shattering stuff if you already keep a diary and monitor your health to some extent.
I suppose that a lot of this tech that claims to understand relationships based on physiological measurements runs into the same problem. They're trying to understand relationship health or potential compatibility through physiological measurements, and no matter how much data they collect there are so many variables involved that it's tough to discern real insight. However, it is interesting that so many companies are trying to work their way into this niche—it's like they understand that there are many people out there who want to take the work out of a relationship and thus are looking for ways to automate these decisions to relieve the burden for
Is the Quantified Self Our Greatest Predeterminant of Relationship Success?
Researchers and romantics alike have been talking about physical chemistry for generations with the notion that people meet and are attracted to each other for a range of weird and wonderful reasons. Even if these could be quantified, would they ever be evidence of relationship success?
Wearable tech being used for these purposes results in an uncomfortable truth, that unless you choose to opt-out (or not opt-in the first place) there's really nowhere to hide as your biometrics are always on display. That their degree of accuracy may be questionable is particularly problematic, as it distorts how the information may be interpreted by others. Further, if your physiology is exposed, there's really nowhere to celebrate the more esoteric parts of ourselves. This will most likely be the technology's biggest obstacle to adoption.