This is killing the boredom we experience whenever we have down time. That’s good because we’re never bored anymore, but it might also be bad because boredom may actually necessary to achieve deeper levels of thinking. “Every major society, even the minor ones, have built in times where you have to shift your mind, whether it’s prayer or Sundays off,” says Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist working for microprocessor maker Intel. “As human beings, we have to be intermediately disconnected, or differently connected, versus this constant buzz of connectedness.”
The growth of ubiquitous computing and always being connected to a network of billions – whether it’s people or machines – may also be stunting our emotional growth and intelligence. There have been reports that computer-mediated communication loses important emotional coding. We don’t have to experience real-time emotional reactions if we replace face-to-face or phone conversations with e-mails and texts. Some think this means we are developing coarser personalities, which accounts for the fact that we can be so rude and brusque online and over e-mail. Mr. Cerf, for one, likens it to being surrounded by protective bubble of your car.
“When you get in a car and are surrounded by steel and glass, you feel free to say things you would never say face-to-face to anybody,” he says. “In some ways, people behave on the Net in similar fashion.”
Technologists, naturally, believe more technology may be the answer. Microsoft’s Kinect can track your facial expressions, and in 2011 the Mood Meter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used Kinect to detect student smiles in an attempt to gauge general levels of happiness on the school’s campus. MIT professor Rosalind Picard, meanwhile, has developed a face-tracking algorithm that can detect emotions you don’t even know you’re feeling while smartphone apps such as StressSense can tell your mood from the sound of your voice.
These may be the early steps toward re-injecting emotional tonality into computer-mediated communications and it could also lead to computers developing manners. While current automated systems can learn from your behaviour and thereby make helpful suggestions – a computer can easily figure out what your favourite bands are and alert you when they’re coming to town, for example – they still don’t know when it might be appropriate to interrupt you.
“Without an understanding of what we want to know and when we want to know it, it’s difficult for systems to achieve their potential. We’re just beginning to be able to do that effectively,” says Alfred Spector, vice-president of research at Google. “No one gets it right. Even our best friends misread our moods sometimes. That’s among the most important challenges.”
Emotion-sensing technologies may also be combined to let your computer know how you are feeling so that it can adjust its reactions and output to your emotional state. If you’re really upset, for example, maybe that telemarketing call won’t come through.
Bill Buxton, who was at Xerox PARC in the 1980s and is now a principal researcher for Microsoft, says technologists often overlook such matters. For him, it’s also a simple issue of annoyance. He gets particularly irked by those automated telemarketing calls – known as robocalls – that interrupt at the worst possible times. There’s currently no way to tell such a machine to remove him from its list.
“We thought we were trying to do something right and we created a monster in other ways,” he says.
There is also the possibility – or perhaps likelihood – that in the face of all this inexorable technological progression, old-fashioned humanity may re-assert itself. Already, some companies and families are applying the brakes to this seemingly out-of-control locomotive. Last year, Volkswagen pledged to turn off e-mail on BlackBerries for German workers after hours to prevent burnout. Mom and dad, meanwhile, are increasingly telling the kids to leave their phones in their bedrooms when sitting down for dinner.