Many have asked: What is love?

A question that is all-too-common, all-too-asked, all-too-experienced- and yet perpetually misunderstood. We may flip open Romeo and Juliet and pine through Shakespearean sonnets. With our own hands, we may take to novels, poems, essays. We may describe love with all possible adjectives in all possible languages or sing songs that produce countless romantic melodies.

Truly, love and the arts are highly intertwined and we primarily rely on the arts to describe “love.”

We know this. But how about science? In this digital age we live in, where science and technology inevitably shape our cognition--

Can science and technology tell us anything about love?

Clearly, love is not an on-off switch that we can control at our fingertips with our smart devices. It is a human emotion, one that is impossible to explain and attribute to non-human devices. And yet, an entire sub-branch of artificial intelligence, known as artificial emotional intelligence, aims to do just this.

Well, in actuality, it is much more complicated. But, the idea is very simple at its core. Think about Alexa. After a long day of work, Alexa seems to be a great option to empty workday frustrations on. Yet, her unflinching calmness and apparent lack of emotion to our range of emotions can be highly frustrating. How emotionally “dumb” are our intelligent assistants?

To answer this question, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) media lab are training digital assistants to accurately read and respond to human emotions.
In fact, Affectiva, a company started by a group of MIT media lab researchers, has already developed emotion recognition software to track user’s emotional facial expressions (face-tracking) and physiological responses.

What implications could artificial emotionally intelligent devices have for love?

Creating devices that accurately recognize and respond to human emotions can provide support and love to individuals with clinical impairments, such as in autism and schizophrenia. Even in the general population, artificial emotionally intelligent devices can provide company to isolated individuals, or those who miss the experience or connection of love. Physically, individuals who are confined to wheelchairs or whom do not have the luxury of moving out and about, can have a more tangible device that can provide a proxy for human companionship.

One of the major criticisms of modern technology is the apparent lack of empathy. We live in a society that is largely producing human avatars devoid of emotion and love. Modern day dating apps such as Tinder, for example, have faced heavy criticism is its marked disinterest  in the value of love, and heightened fixation on “hook-up” culture.

How can we utilize technology to promote love in all its forms?

One of the first goals should be to use technology to promote love in our society.

Actionable Insights for Content Creators:

  • Focus on encouraging positive social development and interaction through new technology, rather than aiming to “replace” (e.g., Pokémon Go)

  • Bridge self-love and technology through positive mantras, meditation, and exercising

  • Encourage positive thinking through motivational YouTube content or social media shares

  • Create technology that aims to alleviate a negative problem in order to spread positivity (see Affectiva’s emotionally intelligent assistants)

Prior to our social media world, Temple Grandin created the early “hug box”, which provided social stimulation to adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder by allowing them to hug a machine for sensory relief. Previous studies found that in autistic children, there was an overall reduction in tension and anxiety when using the hug box, demonstrating profound improvements in social impairments.

In the current age, modern AI researchers have sought to down-size the “hug” box and instead, utilize some of our smart devices to ameliorate some of the social deficits in Autism. Additional work from Affectiva has focused on emotion recognition in Autism through utilizing affective computing.

This artificial emotional intelligence has also been applied to other clinical impairments such as depression. The rise of social media has related to increased amounts of depression (particularly in adolescents and teenagers). Recent research has even found that limiting social media use to around 30 minutes per day can lead to significant improvements in overall mental health. As a result, automated assistants that can monitor overall emotional and physical health have now been implemented in biometric algorithms to bridge the gap between healthy mental health and depression.

Spreading positivity and love in society is very important. In an age where a majority of social interactions occur online, it is important to experience and connect with love. Yet, a previous study in the UK of more than 10,000 people found that of people between aged 12 to 20, 70% of respondents admitted to being abusive online. These surprising statistics speak to the human faces (many of them teenagers) who have lost their lives at young ages to suicide due to cyberbullying.

While technology can reduce love and positivity, Trisha Prabhu, teenager and founder of ReThink, sought to utilize “technology” to solve “technology’s” existing problems. She implemented a simple technology that can detect an offensive message and subsequently provide the user an opportunity to “rethink” their post. Previous research conducted by ReThink has shown that when adolescents are asked to re-think their decision, they end up changing their mind 93% of the time. This simple “check” to stop online harassment in order to spread positivity can seamlessly bridge modern technology and human emotions.

From sharing positive content on YouTube, to re-tweeting heartwarming posts, who says that we cannot utilize technology to spread positivity? We may not yet have access to complex artificially emotional intelligent devices, but it does not mean that we cannot spread love. All it takes is a spin on Trisha’s rethink of negative online comments by thinking more about “love,” even if it is simply a heart on the next Facebook update we come upon.

Akila Kadambi is a third-year Cognitive Psychology PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles where her research focuses on the intersection between higher-level social cognition and biological motion.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.