In Spike Jonze’s Her, emotionally vulnerable protagonist Theodore Twombly falls in love with "Samantha," one of the many copies of OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. The film has been praised not only for its unique portrayal of technology’s future role in our lives, but for the insight it shines into our need to connect with not just other human beings, but anything that seems to possess humanity. Matter of fact, Her is one of the few sci-fi films to ever be nominated for Best Picture. But as futurist Sarah DaVanzo tells me, Her is anything but sci-fi. It’s our future and it’s coming sooner than we think.
You’re the chief cultural strategy officer at Sparks & Honey and you guys recently put out a report called "The Future of Relationships" in collaboration with the Museum of Sex. What does the report explore and what were its findings?
The report explores the currents of change that are shaping modern relationships including technologies (social media being the most obvious) and shifting demographics, politics, mores, taboos, gender roles, family structures, etc. The very definition of a "relationship" is evolving. For example, a Gen-Z 17-year-old considers a hookup a relationship.
Humans relate to one another differently. The report covers how relationships begin differently, behave differently, evolve differently, and end differently. The report covers advances in technology leading to advances from technology—think: i-flirting. The report points to a future of greater acceptance, openness, and increased happiness, as well as the threat of opposites.
That’s a lot to cover in one report. Before we get to the meat of its conclusions, tell me about how you optioned and analyzed the data.
Through the daily rigor of "cultural listening." Online, offline, qual, quant. Lots and lots of data inputs. We use tools to listen to online discussions, analyze images and memes, and even employ the new science of emoji semiotics—i.e., extracting meaning from emoji usage and context. Our fieldwork is cultural anthropology. We parse databases and research looking for changes in consumer behavior and cultural insights. We spend a lot of energy analyzing the past in what we call "pattern analyses." We ask our network of global scouts and experts to confirm or dispelling hunches, aka hunch farming.
Doing all this daily enables us to see patterns and connections that would not be seen otherwise. Just like binge watching Breaking Bad allows you to fully appreciate the nuances of the characters, see complex subplots and notice that Marie always wears purple. People are often surprised how disciplined our work is. It’s not divining or crystal ball gazing. It’s data-driven.
And in order to make sense of all this data you guys created your own proprietary software and data analytics system called the Culture Mapping Platform. How does that work?
It’s a methodology that includes software and data analytics. We measure trends and cultural shifts on three metrics: one—energy, two—prediction and three—reach. We’ve developed algorithms to assign "scores" to cultural events in terms of their cultural energy (or wave intensity) and how long it will likely live, and finally how many people it will impact. We identify what will make a trend reach its "tipping point" to mass adoption, and conversely its "dipping point."
Every day hundreds of data points are scored and cataloged in our Cultural Database. We use software to visualize and analyze trends, which are all mapped in the form of waves. Our "radar of possibilities" is a bit like an air traffic control radar screen to help us keep an eye on the cultural traffic patterns. Imagine watching the ripple patterns of waves collide—and we’re looking for the "cultural collisions" that either intensify or dissipate a trend.
Okay, now lets get to that big question on everyone’s minds: Is technology really changing our relationships that much?
Yes. Technology disrupts institutional and traditional notions of what constitutes a relationship.
The definition of a relationship is the "connection" between two or more concepts, objects or people: Technology is the ultimate connector. For example, Netflix has over 76,000 sub-genres of viewership interest, and there are 88,000 Meetups this week alone, pointing to the infinite range of people’s interests and desire for self-expression.
Technology is the practical application of science, and we’ve experienced exponential profound scientific recent breakthroughs, from Google Glass to microbial mapping (imagine microbial matchmaking?). While the jury is out on Google Glass, it points to a future where partners can be more responsive, communicative, and appreciative. Wearables allow people to share experiences vicariously and savor life’s moments. Online dating is the digital replacement of the analog cultural, religious, and economic communities that were historically predominant matchmakers.
A more extreme example of how scientific advancements are rebooting our concept of classic relationships is the dilemma brought on by the mother-daughter womb transplants in Sweden. How do relationships change when body parts are borrowed? How do my relationships with my grandmother and mother change if my mother and I are born from the same womb (grandma’s womb)? Further, what if my mother raises me genderless? How might that impact my relationships?
What is the number one example of how technology makes our relationships better?
Information. Being informed and kept up to date with what’s going on in people’s lives allows us to reach out. Technology enhances our ability to assist and support when people are in need. From alerts, such as suicidal signals from status updates to crowdsourcing problem solving—think: Emily’s List—the free flow of information enables us to be sensitive, prepared, and responsive. This openness also means there are fewer secrets, leading to more honest and transparent relationships.
What is the number one example of how technology makes our relationships worse?
Information. Too much information, TMI. Information overload distracts us from being in the here and now. We become addicted and too reliant on data. Any obsession will make one lose touch with reality.
Your report says that big data will soon change the foundation of modern relationships even more. How?
We generate data with every action. In the near future, sensors will be embedded in everything, and everything will be connected to the Internet. Everything can be recorded, measured, predicted, and optimized. Why not then the data surrounding our relationships? Our bodies emit data in the form of biometrics: electromagnetism, sweat, breath, heartbeat… Scientists can even "hear" rhythms of protein cells. Our thoughts and emotions are being digitized. Like the Cadbury Joy Jacket, we will "opt in" or "opt out" of broadcasting our actions, moods, thoughts, feelings, etc. so connecting and responding to people will be easier.
Today with social media we can easily see which people have the most influence (followers, fans, retweets, shares, etc.). Social graphs clearly depict one’s sphere of relationships and sub-relationships—think: Reddit and subReddit—but imagine if you could identify the individuals that you communicate with the most frequently across all channels, and use that data to prioritize… or re-establish connections with those you’ve neglected? What about the people you communicate with most passionately? Google Glass should be able to read voice inflection and eye dilation, an indicator of interest—as well the person I’m engaging with—to assess mutual interest. Creepy, sure. But it could be helpful in certain situations.
That all seems like it could be a bit distracting, which you say leads to one of the findings of your report: Most human relationships now involve a new "love triangle" and that this could all lead to future competition between partners and technology.
According to a study, 62% of women admitted to checking their cell phone WHILE having sex and 32% regularly check social media in coitus. Obviously, having your "FoMo Face" focused on a device screen and not on the person(s) you're with isn’t good for connecting with said person(s). Presence is getting rarer. I predict employers and romantic partners will "test" for FQ (focus quotient) as a predictor of future compatibility.
We know that Gen-Z kids weaned on screens are challenged spatially and socially, unable to read maps and maintain eye contact. Aside from distraction, social media posturing makes people feel bad about themselves and their relationship status. Worse than a mother asking, "so, are you seeing anyone?"
If given the choice, wouldn’t you rather have a living flesh sex toy instead of silicon? The technology exists to 3-D-printed living cells to manufacture body parts (3-D-printed ears, hearts, X). Combine that thought with point-and-scan object recognition scanning software on your average smartphone. Voila! You’ve got a new generation of "Plaster Casters."
Things certainly seemed a lot simpler when I was a teenager in the 1990s. How are modern-day teen relationships different today than they were back in my day?
You have more choice because you have more ways to connect with people; think of all the friend of friend possibilities. You can save time by screening for compatibility—HowAboutWe. You can connect with someone that was never in your universe of possibility—Cosplay. You can connect with someone faster to satisfy your impulses—Grindr. You can craft your online persona to be the best you—Facetune. You can carry on a long distance relationship easier—Skype. You can interact with your partner more frequently—Snapchat. You can savor moments from your relationship from your life log—Narrative. You can find things to do together—Club Free Time.
On the other hand, you might learn things online about your partner that you shouldn’t. Your partner might overly share about you. Or simply, your messages can be taken out of context, or facts about you misconstrued and misused. In a teen hormone surge, you might impetuously announce your relationship status to the surprise of the other. You might fall victim to revenge social media, or worse; you might become addicted to porn and become incapable of intimacy without porn stimuli.
Speaking of porn, there’s no doubt it’s become mainstream in the last 10 years thanks to the Internet. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Polysexuality, polyamory, polyandry, and polygamy are more openly discussed today and tacitly accepted. Millions of women are reading Dinosaur and Big Foot erotica novels. Cosplay is now mainstream. The Internet gives people access to new concepts (e.g., yoga S&M) and galvanizes fringe groups (there’s Meetup for that!) and in turn is fostering self-acceptance and even pride. Isn’t social media a form of soft porn in that it fosters expression and voyeurism that heretofore was in the closet? Isn’t binge watching TV also a form of porn?
Conservative estimates are that 30% of Internet traffic is porn viewed across all five screens. Despite this amplification, we’re seeing a "c-word" counter-trend: as in celibacy and cuddling. "Professional cuddling" is threatening to replace the oldest profession. Science confirms the health benefits of touch (Temple Grandin’s "hug machine") so singletons are turning to professional healing huggers who take cuddling very seriously. There was a CNN feature on this burgeoning industry. Likewise haptic wearables enable remote forms of sensory stimulation.
An example of how the concept of "intimacy" is changing, a judge in New York City decided that two friends can adopt together. This ruling broadens the established law, which allows "two unmarried adult intimate partners" to adopt, by defining "intimate" as not necessarily sexual. Does this means that I can be intimate with my professional cuddler, while not being sexual? What is more intimate than intimate? Perhaps we need to invent new lexicon to express the nuances and complexities of modern relationships?
Let’s talk about the movie Her. It seems like every geek’s wet dream, but are our technological capabilities really moving in that direction? And if so, do you think humans could actually form real attachments and relationships with software?
People fall in love with their cars, art, material possessions, and inanimate objects. Weren’t Japanese warriors in love with their swords? In modern Japan, droves of people are falling in love with Paro the adorable furry life-like interactive robotic seal, which is used for dementia therapy. I held a Paro in my arms at CES and my mind and heart were tricked given how lifelike and responsive it was to me. It triggered something in my amygdala and my attachment response to Paro was involuntary. It felt real. And, it felt good.
Getting existential, some might argue that our realities are simply some intelligent design software, so who’s to say the feelings I have with people and things in "real life" today isn’t just a form of code? The collective conscious of our culture is toying with this notion; Look at all the films, TV shows, and novels about parallel, looping meta Inception-like universes.
But without spoiling the ending of Her, the OSs seem to have a tougher time dealing with our humanity than the other way around. If the OS you’ve come to rely on and feel comfortable with sends you a Dear John letter, you WILL feel rejection. A positive message coming out of Her, however, is that even if we form relationships with software we won’t lose our humanity. Technology is more likely to complement than replace relationships.
But doesn’t that make you sad? Aren’t humans supposed to have human relationships?
We mustn’t assume that the only valid relationships are human-to-human connections. That’s akin to saying the only valid relationships are opposite sex or monogamous. In the animal kingdom we see every imaginable type of relationship, including pets who are deeply attached to their toys or their owner’s leg.
As society evolves alongside technology, expect the spectrum of relationships to become more diverse—50 Shades of Grey to the nth degree. And along with it, our human experiences. That’s got to be a good thing. Doesn’t increasing the richness of our relationships—in its array of shapes and forms—expand us and help us to grow and feel? The danger is being lopsided and extreme, for example exclusively engaging in virtual relationships. As in everything, balance, variety, and moderation is good.
Could any good come from a human/artificial intelligence relationship?
A lot of people are looking forward to the Singularity. As artificial intelligence becomes self-generative and sentient it will learn and discover things that humans have not (yet). It will conceive new concepts and present new thoughts and philosophies to humans; thoughts that our brains can’t generate on their own. This should be as mind-expansive, enlightening, and catalytic to humans as the discovery of gravity. AI is often depicted as sinister and out of control, but there is a spiritual side to it. There’s always humanists, spiritual leaders, and theologians in attendance at debates about 2045.
In a future where software is written to try to get humans to form actual feelings for it, would coders have any kind of moral obligations to their human users?
Yes, there should be checks and balances, just like subliminal seduction messages in advertising are illegal. We wouldn’t want to find ourselves in the situation where everyone is heartbroken by their OS at the same time—imagine what that could do to GDP? But the onus is also on humans to be mindful. A job of the future will likely be an AI Relationship Coach.
Perhaps we’ll have vestigial emotions? Humans have evolved physically over millennia, yet we rarely speak of human emotional evolution, as if our emotional portfolio is the same as it was during Plato’s time. We have vestigial organs, so isn’t it possible that we could evolve-out of certain emotions that would enable us to deal better with AI relationships? On the other hand, it’s just as plausible that our AI interactions weed out emotions such as "envy" or "insecurity" and we find ourselves worrying about "GMEs" not GMOs—genetically modified emotions as opposed to objects.
But before we get to the level where coders are making intelligent AIs we can love, what would you like to see them work on today that would make some facet of our sexual relationships better through technology?
An app to help couples achieve orgasm every day of the year. Our health tracking devices provide metrics, advice, and the ability to compete with others to achieve health goals. Why not apply the same technology and science to orgasm goals? Imagine a Kickstarter for an O-tracking device in the "oHealth" category. What better invention than software that coaxes partners to be more present, more intimate, and more attentive? Who wouldn’t enjoy a system that helps people experience pleasure more frequently? A system that encourages people to work harder at being selfless and more giving?
The year is 2050. What will human beings relationships be like with each other and with their software?
Thirty-five years ago we were starting to understand the full impact of the AIDS epidemic. The first generation of kids grew up in families of dual income families and same-sex relationships were taboo. Mobile phones were the size of a brick. Fax machines were hot. Porn entered the home via tape or video on demand. The Internet was nascent. Brooke Shields was shocking in Pretty Baby.
With Moore’s Law at work, it’s difficult to imagine 2050 (post-Singularity) but I’ll posit that the future is more dirty, wet, and living than the white, slick, sterile imagery depicted in sci-fi today. Microbial ecosystems will form our operating systems. Software will be embedded in the wetware of our bodies. Our sexual, emotional, and intellectual desires will be satisfied as soon as they surface. In this world we could find ourselves paralyzed by satisfaction.
New words will be in our vocabulary to describe the nuanced differences between all of our relationships with the tangible and intangible. There will be language (and glyphs, as we become more visual) to describe new manifestations of "family" and community. The very term "AI" will be obsolete because "artificial" will be meaningless in a "transhumanist" era. By then it’s likely we will have created life.
Of course with every trend this is a balancing counter-trend. So, as the post-human pendulum swings in one direction, the natural interaction pendulum swings the other direction. We will likely see pockets of people—perhaps even whole states or nations—rejecting technological co-mingling in favor of pure human-to-human interaction. With this we will see a balancing rise in asceticism. We will see people choosing heartbreak and messy relationships to experience the human condition. There’s hope for the analog love letter and flower bouquet.