Computers may soon know us better than our friends

Researchers hope to create a robot brain which, rather than be murderous like Hal, would be socially intelligent. Picture: Getty
Researchers hope to create a robot brain which, rather than be murderous like Hal, would be socially intelligent. Picture: Getty
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COMPUTER says: “No… you can do better.”

The intuitive judgment of a robotic brain may soon be helping pick out our future brides or grooms and plotting our career paths after research revealed that computers can be a better judge of our character than even parents or closest friends.

While science fiction has presented artificial intelligence (AI) either as the murderous HAL from 2001 or the dutiful butler C3PO in Star Wars, academics at Cambridge University believe computers can be as insightful as an Oprah Winfrey.

Research has shown that by studying a person’s “Likes” on Facebook, new software could predict personality more accurately than friends and family, and only husbands and wives rivalled the computer’s ability to sum up broad psychological traits.

The research is an “important milestone” on the path towards more natural and social interactions between humans and computers or robots, according to the scientists.

The lead author of the new report, Wu Youyou, from Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, said: “In the future, computers could be able to infer our psychological traits and react accordingly, leading to the emergence of emotionally intelligent and socially skilled machines.

In this context, the human-computer interactions depicted in science fiction films such as Her seem to be within our reach.”

In Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, a man develops a close relationship with an intelligent computer operating system personified by a female voice calling itself Samantha. The researchers found that their software was able to predict a study participant’s personality more accurately than a work colleague by analysing just ten Likes. Inputting 70 Likes allowed it to obtain a truer picture of someone’s character than a friend or flatmate, while 150 Likes outperformed a parent or sibling. It took 300 Likes before the programme was able to judge character better than a spouse.

Given an average Facebook user has about 227 Likes, the ­researchers say this kind of AI has the potential to know us better than our closest companions.

The work is reported in the journal Proceedings of the ­National Academy of Sciences.

For the research, 86,220 volunteers on Facebook completed a 100-item personality questionnaire and allowed their Likes to be accessed. The results provided self-reported personality scores for the “big five” psychological traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (Ocean).

Analysis showed which Likes equated with higher levels of particular traits. For­ instance, liking “Salvador Dali” or “meditation” revealed a high degree of “openness”.

The results of the computerised character assessment were compared with judgments of friends and family members made using a shorter version of the personality test. Given enough Likes, the software matched people’s self-reported personality traits more closely than siblings, parents or partners. Scientists believe the technology could influence who we employ, elect – even marry.

Co-author Dr David Stillwell, also from Cambridge University, said: “The ability to judge personality is an essential component of social living – from day-to-day decisions to long-term plans such as whom to marry, trust, hire or elect as president. The results of such data analysis can be very useful in aiding people when making decisions.”

But the researchers share the concerns of those who fear a dystopian future in which our traits and habits are an “open book” for computers to read. Dr Michal Kosinski, a member of the team from Stanford University in the US, said: “We hope consumers, technology developers, and policy-makers will tackle those challenges by supporting privacy-protecting laws and technologies, and giving users full control over their digital footprints.”