Futuristic technology turns phones into ‘friends’

With apps measuring everything from calories to sleep patterns, smartphones are becoming ever more intimate with their users. Are we in danger of falling in love with machines?

‘I can tell from the tone of your voice, Dave, that you’re upset,’ says HAL, the most intelligent computer ever built. ‘Why don’t you take a stress pill and get some rest?’

HAL does not exist; he is a character from classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, however, such concerned prompts from our machines are close to becoming a commonplace reality.

Already smartphones can use ‘feedback loops’ to measure our habits and change them for the better. They can monitor our sleep, diet, exercise and productivity – encouraging our efforts and scolding gently when we go astray. They can track our location, warn us if we are missing an appointment and introduce nearby strangers whose interests we share. Phones are becoming more than just handy gadgets: they are companions and confidants in every aspect of daily life.

What is more, many of these complex and personal interactions can be conducted via a friendly chat. Voice activation technology means that now you can speak to your phone, and apps like Siri can set a dinner date in your diary, send out the invitations and tell you where to buy food. And this is just the beginning. A generation of apps now in development will talk to us in more sympathetic and ‘human’ ways; experts predict that machines will soon even be able to read our moods.

Now, an article has caused a stir by asking an unsettling question: are we developing ‘human’ relationships with our phones?

Its author, Janelle Nanos, believes that the answer is ‘yes.’ The relationship she describes is not always happy: she hides information from her phone to avoid its nagging, for instance – and then feels guilty for lying to it. But despite these tiffs, she keeps on coming back. ‘I love my phone,’ she says.

She is not the only one. Last year a scientist examined the effects of a phone alert on its user’s brain. The electronic beeping, he claimed, triggered parts of the brain associated with familiarity and affection: his subjects were responding to their phones as they would to a close friend, or even a partner. These conclusions are disputed – but many find them all too believable.

The only way is app

This, say enthusiasts, is the beginning of an incredible future. By bringing the sharp edge of modern technology to bear on ourselves, we can learn to understand and control our behaviour in ways never before possible. Smart technology, they say, makes us better, brighter people.

Not so fast, say others: this infatuation with technology will only make us dependent on it. We are being drawn further and further from the things that really matter: the real world, and other people. The future will be bleak indeed, if human contact is replaced by the cold glow of a touchscreen.

You Decide

  1. Does modern technology alienate people from each other?
  2. Do smartphones make us smarter?

Activities

  1. Write a short science fiction story set in a future where interactive technology has been built in to every part of our lives. Would you want to live there?
  2. Research the concept of ‘feedback loops’ and draw a diagram explaining how they work.

Some People Say...

“I love my phone like a friend.”

What do you think?

Q & A

In love with my phone? Really?
That might be a bit exaggerated. But interactive technology has been proven to trigger the release of pleasure hormones like dopamine. You know that little buzz you get on receiving a text or Facebook alert? That’s the hormones at work.
Sounds fun...
Perhaps – but there are downsides. Our brains are designed for a less fast and stimulating world than that of mobile technology. Some worry that they are becoming addicted to the instant hits of this alternative reality and losing touch with slower, deeper pleasures – those of nature or personal relationships.

Word Watch

2001: A Space Odyssey
When Stanley Kubrick directed this sci-fi masterpiece in 1968, he made huge efforts to achieve scientific accuracy. He took advice from over 50 organisations on what the world would look like in 2001. Kubrick’s advisors predicted several details well, but he also got some big things spectacularly wrong: the whole film hinges on interplanetary space flight and colonies on the moon!
Feedback loops
Feedback is when the result of a process changes the process so that it has different results in the future. For instance, feedback from an electric guitar happens when the sound from the speakers is picked up by the guitar, distorting the sound. This can be used to alter human behaviour: a driver speeds, the result is a speeding ticket, they are less likely to speed in future.
Apps
Applications are bits of software that enable a computer to carry out specific tasks. They have been around for years, but ‘apps’ for the smartphone age have revolutionised mobile technology. They allow a single phone to adapt itself to any task that somebody has had the ingenuity to create an app for.
Siri
A ‘personal secretary’ app owned by Apple that uses voice recognition and ‘natural language’ programming.

Subjects

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