Mother Doesn’t Know Best: What Your Social Network Knows, But Your Family Doesn’t

Mother Doesn’t Know Best: What Your Social Network Knows, But Your Family Doesn’t

Blade Runner. A.I. I Am Robot. Bicentennial man. Her. There are dozens of great (or at least okay-ish) SF movies featuring some kind of artificial intelligence, and the question that each of them poses is – Can a machine learning driven droid be comparable to a human being. “No” is usually the answer to that question that lingers in the subtext of the plot, and we mostly agree with that. A robot cannot develop emotional intelligence. However smart it might be, it can’t understand you or know you like your good old mum, for example.

Well, you’re wrong. I think it’s still pretty ok to say that no one can love you like your mother, but Facebook’s got the old lady beaten by a mile when it comes to knowing you. Science says so! A study published in the Proceedings of the National Science Academy (known as PNAS) tested this using a sample of 86,220 volunteers who completed a 100-item personality questionnaire.

Friends vs. Facebook

Their friends were asked to fill in the same questionnaire to show how much they know about them, and then the same information was inferred from Facebook data. Turns out that computer predictions  about what you’re likely to do or like are more accurate when based on a generic digital footprint (that being a fancy term for Facebook Likes) than the deep emotional understanding your friends have for you.

Substance use, political attitudes, and physical health – those are all topics that your favorite social network excels in when quizzed about the wonder that is you. But there’s more – the emotional intelligence lacking algorithms are also better at judging your personality, based on the output you give.

The way people normally size you up, in scientific terms, depends on the availability and the amount of the relevant behavioral information, along with the judges’ ability to detect and use it correctly. Basically, how much time the person has spent with you and how good a judge of character they are.

Now, on average people spend at least an hour or two on Facebook, many of them never log out and interact heavily with their friends over the platform. So when you count everything in, do you think you spend as much time with anyone in the world, as you do with or on Facebook?

So that’s a massive amount of behavioral information, to pick up on the terminology, and all that info goes to a system that, unlike your very human friends, does not miss a thing, and is wickedly good at making sense of data.

In more technical terms, it generates consistent algorithms that optimize the judgmental accuracy, which means it tries to correct all the wrong judgments, and not to mention it is not in any way biased – it doesn’t like or dislike you, it doesn’t have big expectations of you or a need to belittle you.

SF – Not That Far Off Mark

So the SF scenario of artificial (emotional) intelligence? Totally possible, say the researchers:

Popular culture has depicted robots that surpass humans in making psychological inferences. In the film Her, for example, the main character falls in love with his operating system. By curating and analyzing his digital records, his computer can understand and respond to his thoughts and needs much better than other humans, including his long-term girlfriend and closest friends. Our research, along with development in robotics (29, 30), provides empirical evidence that such a scenario is becoming increasingly likely as tools for digital assessment come to maturity. The ability to accurately assess psychological traits and states, using digital footprints of behavior, occupies an important milestone on the path toward more social human-computer interactions.

But I don’t want to leave you disappointed at your friends and turning to your first AI enabled device for comfort. the research only took into account “The Big Five” personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. That’s only a part of your personality, and when it comes to knowing all the little quirks that make you you – that’s where people you love still take the lead.


Tena Šojer

Tena graduated from University of Zagreb with a masters degree in English and Anthropology. Her interests are writing, science, technology and education, and her goal in life is to find a way to pursue them all at the same time. She is currently writing for Netokracija, working with a great team to bring the best internet and tech related news to the Balkans.

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