- The biometric future of romance


In the future, you will not have to go through the trouble of finding a partner yourself: that’s what algorithms are for. Researchers are working on a range of methods and technologies that can measure if you and your date are on the same wavelength – literally – by way of biometrical data about your body and brain. The big question will be where we draw the boundaries for what the predictive algorithm of love should decide.

Sofie Thorsen


Posted Jun 7, 2019 in Technology Article from Scenario 04:2018

The year is 2030. You are looking for a romantic partner in a world where sexuality is fluid, and where love is made independent of space and time. But how do you find the right person for you when you are drowning in an endless sea of choices? How do you avoid wasting your time on endless swiping, awkward first encounters, and misunderstood expectations? Imagine that you and your date’s compatibility is already determined during your first date by biometric data and brain waves. When you meet a potential partner for the first time, you sit down face to face and both put on wireless EEG caps that measure your brain activity. While you talk, an algorithmic dance begins where your brain data reveals if you are on the same wavelength. If you aren’t compatible, the system installs hormonal barriers that block future attraction between the two of you. You shake hands and go your separate ways. If, on the other hand, you are a good match, the system encodes a range of common memories in you that your further romantic lives may be based on. Your first date is really your thirtieth, and you have skipped the first, preliminary dates, and now you can really get down to knowing each other.

The future described here isn’t reality. Not yet. It is a scenario imagined by sociologist Shelly Ronan and the artist Ernesto Morales from the design fiction project Object Solutions. Even so, a future where your quest for a partner is orchestrated by biometric data may not lie far beyond the horizon.

The biometric data revolution

In recent years, we have repeatedly heard about how the Big Data industry is growing at a rapid pace. What most haven’t yet realised, however, is that the big data revolution isn’t just a matter of data volume. The nature of the data being collected about us is also being transformed.

The biometric market will triple in value from about USD 10 billion in 2015 to more than 30 billion in 2022

One type of data especially, biometric data, will come to play a big role in how intimate knowledge can be collected about an individual. Biometric data are measurable physical characteristics and unique biological signatures, such as fingerprints, voice patterns, iris, gait, and facial features, that can be used to identify individuals. Today, such data are mainly used for security, regulation of data access, preventing identity theft, and authentication of people in health services, border controls, prisons, airports, the banking and finance sector, and voter registration. Slowly, however, biometric techniques are entering the realm of the private consumer. This is the case when you unlock your smartphone or computer with your fingerprint or facial recognition. Increasingly, many of us also voluntarily collect biometrical data about ourselves. Even today, wearable technology like smartwatches are used to register various metrics from our bodies that inform us about what we can do to optimise our health and performance. Apple Watch, for instance, measures your cardiac rhythm and is used by athletes to optimise training and by patients to monitor heart problems, while a range of wearables from the company Fitbit collect data about your sleep and exercise habits. The wearables industry is in fact growing so fast that the sale of units, according to the International Data Corporation, is expected to double from 2016 to 2021. This means that the volume of biometric data is also going to explode. Accordingly, the biometrics industry has grown intensively over the last decade and is considered one of the fastest growing segments in the information technology sector. The market analysis agency Markets and Markets estimates that the biometric market will triple in value from about USD 10 billion in 2015 to more than 30 billion in 2022. Needless to say, the future holds hitherto unseen opportunities for using biometric data for learning much more about the individual person. The question, then, is what the potential of the technology could be in our quest for love.

Where in our bodies does love reside?

Suzanne Dikker is a neuroscientist at Utrecht University and New York University. For years she has done research into what it means to ‘be on the same wavelength’ with another person. In her experiment neuroTango she studied what happens in the brains of a couple of tango dancers when they spin around together on the dance floor. The dancers are equipped with wireless EEG caps that measure electric impulses in their brains. If the same sections of their brains are active at the same time, Dikker takes it as an expression of brain synchronisation. In another experiment, The Magic of Mutual Gaze, Dikker has collaborated with artist Marina Abramovic to recreate the famous MoMA show “The Artist is Present” from 2010 where she showcased how the brain activity of two individuals typically synchronise when they maintain eye contact for a long time. Even though the conditions that concretely influence brainwave synchronisation are still unknown, a growing number of neuroscientists like Dikker have begun studying such brain-to-brain couplings.For instance, it has recently been shown by researchers in cognitive science from University of Colorado that when romantic lovers hold hands, their brain activities are synchronised with the effect that any experienced pain is reduced. The closer neuroscientists come to understanding the interpersonal synchronisation of brain activity between two people, the more likely it is that this knowledge can be used to evaluate our social relations, including our potential with romantic partners. However, if we desire to use biometric data to measure our compatibility with others, the next question will obviously be: where in our bodies does love reside? Do we find the best measure of good chemistry in our brains’ impulses or in the rhythms of our heartbeats?

In the US alone, according to Statistic Brain, in 2017 more than 49 million out of 54 million singles used online dating sites and apps

In contrast to Dikker’s experiments with neural data, other scientists have begun using data about our body’s pulse, sweat, and similar physiological responses as measures of who you are attracted to. As an example, a researcher from New York University has developed True Love Tinder Robot. This robot is basically a mechanical hand that swipes right or left on various Tinder dating profiles on your behalf. Measurements of your cardiac rhythms and the sweatiness of your palms are used to decide for you whether you are attracted to the people you are presented with. The robot’s creator, Nicole He, thinks that we tend to overthink our actions when it comes to love, and this means that we often ignore our physical impulses. Rather than leaving it up to you, cardiac and palm data may reveal if you are attracted or not. In the same way, the Heart Rate Powered Tinder App (HRPTA), developed by Agency T3, also uses biometric Apple Watch data about your cardiac rhythm to determine if you are attracted to the person on the Tinder profile that you are presented with.

In both cases, the decision about becoming partners is put into the ‘hands’ of algorithms. The question, then, is if we are willing to believe that computers and algorithms are better than us at determining who we are attracted to. Even if this is the case, we can debate if we are really willing to lose self-determination in our choice of partner. Would it not mean that we outsource one of the most important and intimate decisions of our lives to technology? Love, infatuation, and physical attraction are such complex and qualitative entities that it seems absurd to reduce any of them to quantifiable measurements. The idea that algorithms in the future will control our love lives may seem almost dystopian. Yet we already live in a culture where it is the norm rather than the rule that we use new technology to optimise our quest for love.

Streamlining love

Since the 19th century, when the modern idea of romantic love was born, we have seen new technologies used to streamline our quest for a partner. For instance, tech journalist Tom Standage describes in his book The Victorian Internet how the telegraph was used to write long distance about love: couples fell in love over the electrical wire, and the telegraph enabled the first ‘online’ wedding in 1848 between a bride in Boston and a groom in New York. Since then, technologies like landline telephones, e-mail, the mobile phone, the internet, and most recently smartphones were used to streamline our contact with each other in the name of love. In the US alone, according to the research institute Statistic Brain, in 2017 more than 49 million out of 54 million singles used online dating sites and apps. We swipe right and left, fill in detailed dating profiles, and use the GPS function in our smartphones to see if there are potential partners nearby. Meanwhile, the smartphone market has seen an explosion of apps for niche dating that connect people with all sorts of needs, whether you are attracted to beards (Bristlr), want to meet people from the countryside (Farmers Only) or meet like-minded Star Trek fans (Trek Passions). Today, there is a dating app for any need – and the growing number of apps aren’t just used for frivolous, short-term dating.

According to the Oxford Internet Institute, in 2010, 22.6 percent of new relationships in Great Britain started online. In the same vein, Statistic Brain has shown that around 17 percent of US marriages in 2016 were between couples who met online, while about 20 percent of long-term relationships had started online. The same survey shows that the average length of courtship for couples who have met online is only about 18 months, while in contrast, courtships among couples that met offline was no less than 42 months. In other words, you get married twice as fast if you meet online rather than offline. Thus, many of us already let love become facilitated by algorithms and data about who we are, where we are, and who is nearby. In this light, it doesn’t seem unlikely to combine the desire of optimising dating with the advent of biometric data. Yet if we believe that compatibility can be measured as biometric data, is it also possible that algorithms might learn to predict with whom we would have good chemistry?

Machine learning and predictive love

Once we start collecting large volumes of biometric data, it is also likely that the very same data could be used to build predictive love models through machine learning. Imagine for example that dating apps begin using your historical data to learn your taste. A prototype of such an app, called Tinderbox, has already been developed by entrepreneur Justin Long. Tinderbox builds onto the Tinder app, but uses facial recognition and deep learning techniques to learn your preferences from your first 50-60 swipes. Then, it begins to select and reject candidates for you and can even initiate conversations with potential dates. You won’t get a notification until it is time for you to engage in the conversation. Such use of machine learning and facial recognition in predictive models will most likely raise several ethical and legal issues. For example, it was the cause of some controversy when a comedy club in Spain began using facial recognition to charge the audience money by their number of laughs during the show. Some will undoubtedly also think that it is wrong to let algorithms choose partners for you rather than doing it yourself. Yet when it comes to streaming sites like Spotify and Netflix, in a very short time most people have become used to having algorithms suggest new content based on their earlier consumption. We could then ask if similar curation of partners will become ‘the new normal’ just as rapidly as Tinder and other dating apps did a few years ago.

Automated selection of dating profiles is one thing, but with the ongoing advances in biotechnology and DNA sequencing, scientists over the last just 10-15 years have come a lot closer to understanding human genetic heritage. As early as 2004, a science group at the Human Genome Project Organisation managed to read a nearly complete DNA sequence for the human genome. Simultaneously, the amount of resources that are used on mapping DNA is without equal in the history of biology, and as DNA sequencing becomes more refined, in the future your genetic code could easily become part of the biometric data that guides your love life.

Where, then, do we set the boundaries for what predictive love algorithms decide? Do you listen when you are told that you are a poor genetic match for someone you have fallen in love with? Or if your best genetic match is with a person you loathe? Genetic matchmaking may seem absurd, but a few companies have already begun using DNA as a guide to your romantic life. While Canadian start-up DNA Romance is establishing a matchmaking service that uses DNA tests to determine your and your partner’s biological compatibility, Swiss-based Genepartner already offers a simple DNA compatibility test at a price tag of USD 249. Thus, the step is short from neurodating to gene dating.

According to Statistic Brain, in 2017, 71 percent of Americans believed in “love at first sight”. Yet what precisely is it that we believe in? The romantic idea that love will strike you like a bolt of lightning when you meet your life partner? Or that you can determine romantic potential in a fraction of a second? Perhaps love at first sight will come to mean less romance and more optimised love, guided by algorithms and biometric data. Welcome to the world of neurodating. Are your ready to meet your one true love?

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