How is technology perceived in terms of relationships?
Alright. You’re at a café with friends. You’re chatting and laughing out loud and having a good time. You take a look around and see a table with three people, each of them scrolling up and down on their smartphones. And all you can think is “look at them, can’t they just enjoy life as it is, why spend the best years of your life behind a screen? That’s just so sad”. We’ve all thought this, right?
Well. Hyperconnectivity is, as the Collins dictionary would have it, “the state of being constantly connected to people and systems through devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers – and sometimes through software that enable and promote constant communication.”
Reading this definition, I recognize the world I’m living in, and feel a slight uneasiness: “is that really what defines us?”
It might be. But is there anything wrong with that? Not really.
Here’s the power of hyperconnectivity
In the definition of hyperconnectivity, I don’t think the keywords are “constantly”, “connected”, and “constant”, I believe they are “people” and “communication”.
When my uncle left for Canada to do his military service at 18, my grandma was worried sick. She wrote him a letter and posted it before he even left, so he was sure to have her words from home when he arrived.
Today? She would’ve texted him “have a safe flight, we’ll miss you. Love you” after leaving him at the gate, and he would’ve answered “arrived safely, talk soon, love you” after his plane landed.
When I went home, one Saturday night, after a party, and walked 20 minutes alone in the dark, I had my eyes locked on my screen. Why? I was texting my best friend about the night, and telling her “please, if I don’t answer in more than five minutes or don’t tell you I’m home safely, call the cops”.
When I spent a lot of time in online chatrooms or forums back in 2005, I made friends. Some were just for the laughs, some were project partners, and some were true friends who still are today! My oldest friend remains a boy I met online more than seven years ago, and I just saw him last month.
These experiences are only possible thanks to the amazing technological progress that has impacted all our relationships, where distance is not that relevant anymore.
By allowing us to reach out and keep permanent contact with those we love, the internet and mobiles have created a new way of being in relationships.
I mean, video-conference is a revolution we barely pay attention to anymore. Being able to get in touch with anybody around the world, and see them, is borderline magic. And the future holds a lot more of this.
Where will technology take our relationships?
There are so many different aspects of this question, but here I’m going to overview four technological areas: virtual reality, multi-sensory technologies, emotionally sensitive technologies, and bots.
While virtual reality seems like the king of devices cutting us off from reality, it will play a big part in real relationships.
Everything we experience is the result of electrical activity in our brains. Therefore, as the The Nano Age explains, our brain is what defines reality. Everything we’re experiencing in the outside world is created in our heads.
And by recreating a very realistic different outside, virtual reality plays with the limits of our perception.
How could it change our relationships? Well, virtual reality creates the possibility of being physically present even if you’re not in the same place. Everything digital communication didn’t pass on can now be shared online: body language, facial expressions or conversation context. What is stopping us from
– creating 3D avatars of our faces and body to interact online in the most natural way possible? This could revolutionize online dating, long-term relationships, elderly care or even babysitting.
– spending time with people in digitally recreated cities when you can’t be physically together
– sharing moments to your entire social circle after having recorded them with a VR camera
– taking lessons of any kind with a virtual teacher, or with human professor in another location
Want to go further? Frank Azor, general manager of Alienware, believes that the next step is integrating your other senses in the experience.
“VR headsets today are doing an excellent job at catering to your visual senses, and a little bit of audio as well,” said Azor, also Alienware’s fourth employee. “Well that’s just two of the senses… Once you begin catering to the rest of the senses, like what we feel body-wise, temperature-wise, and smell, the reality factor of virtual reality [becomes] stronger and the virtual piece begins to fade.”
So, what can be done with our five senses?
Our five senses are what makes us human. They allow us to recognize our surroundings and evolve as humans. It’s hard to comprehend how this inherently human thing could be approached by technology, and yet, there are some incredible things.
Professor Adrian David Cheok focuses on the transmission of smell through the internet. He explains that the difficulty comes from the core of these senses. Audio-visual signals are waves with different frequencies and can easily be turned into a number transmitted online. Taste and smell, however, are molecular based, making them a lot trickier to recreate at a distance. Prof. Cheok’s current research is understanding how taste or smell stimulation turns into electrical signals in the brain, and how we can directly recreate that electrical signal without having to recreate the external stimulus.
How could that be used?
– immersive gaming experiences, with an especially rough time for horror games
– augmented video-conferences from home, where you can smell the cakes baking and remotely pet your dog
– smellable menus for restaurants’ webpages, allowing clients to choose their dish with their nose
While this level of digital transformation is still quite some time away, we today can find products that replicate human senses through the internet:
– Fundawear, by Durex, is connected vibrating underwear, smartphone controlled, for couples in long distance relationships.
– Huggy Pajama is a hug reproducing jacket allowing parents to hug their child remotely, through a connected doll. When the doll receives a signal, the wearable (today jacket, tomorrow maybe more) reproduces the hug.
Digitalization of touch opens many gates, and among them lies one important issue: when does touch becomes pain? The barrier is very thin, and artificial devices aren’t capable today of understanding when they’re creating pain.
Finally, if hearing isn’t a new thing in the digital world, let’s still think about binaural audio. If you have never experienced it, put on your headset and enjoy. Think of the possibilities.
Emotionally sensitive technologies
Now, much like our five senses, emotions are key ingredients in making the perfect human. So technology got onto that and created a new area of tech: the Emotional Internet of Things. It regroups products that are sensitive and can act on users’ emotions. How? Well, if robots cannot feel our emotions in the way we do, they can however measure a lot of physiologic signals to determine how we feel. Our emotions are first and foremost physical responses to stimuli and technology can detect and analyse them very precisely. Here are a few examples:
– EmoSpark plays music, movies or pictures based on the emotions it detects in your voice, word use or facial expressions.
– The Feel wristband gets your emotions from your pulse or your skin, and records them on a smartphone app. It also recognizes your feeling patterns and can offer suggestions on how to improve your mood.
– Sensum analyses customers’ feelings to understand what product gives you a rush, and what product bore you.
– Face detection on cameras have been around for quite some time, but they’re not on top of their game yet, and have yet to be able to suggest the emotional state of the subject. What for? Medical monitoring, babysitting, psychological evaluations and treatments, wellbeing at work, and much more.
This kind of tech will allow us to better understand people (and our own) emotions, and therefore act accordingly. Talk about augmented relationships!
Chatbots, rising stars of the past months, are becoming actors in the relationship revolution.
Chatbots are computer programs capable of understanding and responding to human speech. They’re available on many different channels: social medias, websites, messaging apps, emails, and much more.
Powered by natural language processing, chatbots are today capable of executing defined tasks. And they’re no strangers to emotions either! At SAP Conversational AI, we’ve implemented a sentiment analysis in our chatbots. That means that we can analyse the feeling of a user sentence, from very negative to very positive. IBM Watson goes even further with Tone Analyser, capable of detecting sadness, excitement, joy, anger and many more in writing.
And while the technology has to improve, we can already see many relationships use cases:
– online dating: instead of responding to a form-like website to create your profile and indicate what you’re looking for, declare to your chatbot “i’m Laura, 32, working in retail and i’d like to meet someone who’s also passionate about F1 racing”. Much more human.
– marriage counselling: while a chatbot cannot replace a trained therapist, it can answer some of your questions and guide you to the best practitioner. More interactive than googling your issues, it can also truly adapt to your situation and manage emergencies.
– friends activities: I’m going to guess you have a Whatsapp or Messenger group chat with your best pals. Include a chatbot that is familiar with everyone’s hobbies, favorite places, as well as the group’s usual get togethers, and have him advise you! You can even pimp it with geolocators, money lending managers, and birthday gift suggestions.
Everything is to create. You have a revolutionary idea? Give me a call!