Finding love in cyberspace

The potential for machines to find a true love match is enough to make 21st-century online daters’ hearts flutter 

Of all the decisions you make in life, your choice of partner is probably the most crucial to your chance of happiness. And yet despite all the technological advances of the 21st century, if right now you’re casting about for the love of your life, you’re very likely still envisioning meeting “the one” by some romantic happenstance, rather than thanks to smart technology.

Yet, when seeking a spouse, the sudden manifestation of butterflies in your stomach, wonderful as that feels, is certainly not the most reliable indicator of the person you’re best suited to growing old with.

It would be much better to somehow rationally identify who to spend the next 50 years with. Or as one phenomenally popular relationships blog, written by the American Tim Urban, put it, somehow discover “your eating companion for about 20,000 meals, your travel companion for about 100 vacations… your retirement friend, your career therapist and someone whose day you’ll hear about 18,000 times”.

Put like that it might suddenly sound an utterly bewildering task you’re totally ill-equipped to tackle. But fortunately, thanks to the arrival of the next generation of smart technology, we could soon be living in a beta-dating landscape.

The notion of matching up according to all available data, harvested by new machines installed in our homes, might sound outlandish. But 20 years ago, the idea of coupling up online would have seemed equally ridiculous because none of us had access to the internet, let alone Match.com.

But such technological advances are already working for us on a human level. According to a 2013 study by psychologists at Chicago University, of 20,000 people who wed between 2005 and 2012, marriages that resulted from pairing up online were shown to be 25 per cent more likely to last and to be happier than the marriages of those who’d first met in real life.

One of the principal problems, singles complain, is there is so much choice available to us via apps on our smartphones that the quest for love seems too random and out of control. Right now, all you can do is connect or discard potential matches according to what they look like in their pictures and how they describe themselves on their profiles. Often you find yourself on a date with someone attractive you have nothing in common with or a person who was great to message beforehand, but with whom there is absolutely no spark.

So imagine a futuristic app which could sift through all the available information on all your potential dates, his smart fridge divulging whether he’d be your ideal dinner companion, his smart television telling you if you’d Netflix and chill or fight over the remote and his smart wardrobe informing you if he’s meet-your-mother-ready.

Machines will essentially open doors to a better understanding of ourselves

“When we think about smart tech’s effect on our personal life it can be with trepidation,” says Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder. “But worrying about technology is nothing new – the Victorians thought the telephone would stop people having face-to-face conversations. The reality is, when it comes to mating, smart tech offers novel solutions to increasingly unwieldy problems, the main one being whittling down all the potential candidates for love.”

Tantalisingly, our smart-tech appliances may soon know us better than we know ourselves, particularly when it comes to our real choice of partner. According to Paul W. Eastwick and Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University in the United States, analysis of speed daters has shown “people may have little insight into the characteristics that they truly desire in a romantic partner”. Asked to state their preferences before speed dating began, daters who participated were later proven to have made choices completely contrary to what they had stated.

Academics currently trying to envision the future for us, such as Israeli professor and author of Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari, tend to suggest that faceless corporations, such as Facebook, Google and Apple, already know us better than we know ourselves. So why wouldn’t we want to exploit such superior knowledge of ourselves when trying to find lasting love?

Within the next few decades, we won’t just own smartphones, we’ll live in smart homes. Imperial College Business School in London predicts that by 2019 there will be mass uptake of smart body analysers, by 2021 we’ll own smart showers and use smart mirrors, and by 2026 we’ll have not just smart entertainment systems, smart wardrobes and even smart toilets, we’ll have smart kitchens too.

Last year, Imperial collaborated with the online dating agency eHarmony, which matches up its daters according to in-depth personal questionnaires, to examine how such smart technology might change our love lives for the better.

Smart technology's impact on dating and relationships

“By 2036, more than 12 million UK adults will be matched to a compatible partner using the data that smart tech will record,” says Romain Bertrand, eHarmony’s UK country manager. “Machines will essentially open doors to a better understanding of ourselves.”

This may sound like the very antithesis of romance, but Ms Hodgson, who is the brains behind a brand new podcast series called The Curious Nature of Sex, has spoken to countless singles who are crying out for just the sort of help this smart tech could provide.

“We all like to believe that we can fall in love with just anyone,” she explains. “But when it comes to selecting a life partner, we tend to look for someone who shares our core values. Smart tech that gets better at telling us about our unconscious motivations and how our pulse raises in a conversation about Brexit or infidelity or gun control and so on could massively help us understand what kinds of partners we would be likely to clash with from the off.  And we could match on an even greater spec by shared holiday dreams, books we thought about buying but didn’t.”

For the hopelessly baffled daters of 2017, a brave new world in which smart tech helps lonely hearts find love surely can’t come soon enough.

INSIGHT: DOES SMART TECH KNOW US BETTER THAN WE KNOW OURSELVES?

Person adjusting apple watch black and white

Technological advance is so lightning quick it’s hard to predict exactly where we will end up when it comes to smart tech. As David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, says: “In 1800 it was possible to think meaningfully about what the world of 1900 would be like and how we might fit in… But the world of 2100 is at present almost unimaginable.”

Certainly, smart technology has the capacity to reveal more about us than even our closest confidantes could. For instance, we already type millions of questions into search engines that we are too embarrassed to ask out loud and our search histories often reveal far more about us than we’d like anyone else to know.

While it may sound unlikely that smart tech could play a role in our romantic lives, sex is one thing we’re already discussing far more openly with Google than we are with each other. “There’s obviously a lot of lying around sex because it’s an uncomfortable, taboo area,” says former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. “Data frequently understands us better than we do.”

If smart technology becomes as common in our homes as Google is to our web browsers, the argument that smart tech will know us better than we know ourselves really does start to appear difficult to refute. But it is, of course, predicated on the fact that, though we lie to each other, we always tell technology the truth.

Perhaps in the future this will bear out, but it is worth remembering none of the smart technologies that currently collect information on us predicted the election of Donald Trump or the vote for Brexit. Machines can only process whatever it is we tell them. Not even smart tech can actually read our minds.