A mind of their own

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 10.02.24Currently, my morning commute is fairly simple and always follows a similar pattern – I get in my car, choose a CD to pop into the stereo, drive to my parking spot, and catch up with Facebook’s latest goings-on as I walk to the office.

This routine has served me well for the past few years, but in another five, it could all have changed. In the future it is completely possible, though fiscally improbable(!), that I will be travelling to work in a car that doesn’t need me to drive it, listening to music selected and played to me according to the mood my brainwaves are signalling at the time, whilst my phone is automatically responding to the latest Twitter and Facebook posts on my behalf…all without having to lift a finger or touch a screen.

Google’s patent application relating to social networks robot from earlier this year suggests that there will soon be a system monitors users’ active replies and posts on social networks to ‘learn’ their most common or most likely reaction to each type of activity. For instance, if you usually ‘like’ and/or ‘lol’ at picture you’ve been tagged in, this action could become automated.

Neurowear’s new Mico device, which had its world premiere in Texas in March 2013, can detect a person’s mood by picking up brainwaves via headset and transmitting this information to an app which then scans a database and selects music to match the user’s current emotion. It can also display on the headset when the wearer is feeling tired, stressed or focussed to ward off potentially unwelcome approaches.

Although driverless cars are many years away from being available for general consumption, according to Ipsos MORI’s Tech Tracker, awareness of this technology in Q3 2013 amongst the general public in Great Britain was 28%[1], roughly on par with smart glasses and  higher than smart watches at the time.

Thanks to the creation of more and more automated services such as these, the future looks set to be easier and more efficient – in essence I could complete my commute without having to make many/any conscious decisions. New developments such as these seem to spring from an assumption (accurate or otherwise) that people do not always want to make their own decisions, or do not want to have to constantly be in control.

As nice as it is to relish the thought of being chauffeured around in a driverless car, not to mention the heightened safety record these cars have boasted to date, it may be interesting to consider the flip side of automated efficiency. Namely, the creation of a passive user experience.

Could we find ourselves missing out on some of the joys of little tasks? For instance, Google’s social network proxy robot may save us from having to ‘trawl’ through your posts, comments or tags, but surely these interactions are the reason we’ve signed up to the network in the first place?… If the app has already automatically ‘liked’ and commented on a photo, then you may miss out on the experience of viewing and enjoying that picture yourself. Perhaps even more detrimental is the fact that your contacts may be constantly wondering whether your reply is courtesy of a computerised knee-jerk reaction rather than a genuinely thought-out response from a friend.

Likewise, automatically being played music that is reflective of your mood could detract from the fun of rooting through your song collection and discovering the thing that you most want to listen to at any given time. Not to mention the potential to exacerbate a negative emotion… channelling “All by myself” to someone trying to bounce back from a recent breakup, or blaring Eminem’s ‘Way I Am’ through to someone who’s had “one of those days” may just be enough to send an unsuspecting listener over the edge!

The desire to remain in control can also be seen on a larger scale with respect to driverless cars. Despite high awareness, as described above, there is a greater reluctance to embrace this technology – purchase interest amongst those aware being just 14% (which is below 3D printing, smart wearable technology, and projection gaming). On the one hand, perhaps this is due to the high predicted cost or reluctance to trust a car to drive itself, both of which may lessen as time passes. However, it could also be an indication that people actually enjoy driving, and enjoy being in control – not only for safety, but for the inherent joy of the activity itself. The issue of safety also brings accountability into the picture. If a person is not technically in control of their vehicle, then who is to blame if this car is involved in an accident – the creator of the technology, or the person using it?

So perhaps there is a lot to be said for maintaining responsibility for decision making and autonomous actions rather than handing the reigns to computer programmes. Though on the other hand, advocates of these innovative new computerised tasks could quite rightly argue that everyone deserves to switch off and sit back once in a while…

Jane Rudderham is a Senior Research Executive for Ipsos MediaCT (Twitter: @IpsosMediaCT)

[1] Data from Ipsos MediaCT Technology Tracker