So Appy Together

Siri, the iPhone’s sassy personal assistant, was just the beginning. Right now, behavioral scientists are racing to develop a new generation of apps and programs that can mimic compassion, concern, and sympathy—technology they hope we will form relationships with, even fall in love with. Janelle Nanos goes inside this brave new world to find out how our ever-smarter phones are changing what it means to be human.

Illustration by Viktor Koen

Illustration by Viktor Koen

Monday morning begins with the chime of bells. Blinking awake, I turn toward the noise, pawing at my bedside table in search of my phone. With a quick tap the bells are silenced, as if someone has abruptly cut the ropes in the belfry. I remove the sleep sensor from my forehead and adjust my glasses, scanning through the data from last night to check my REM. “What’s on the agenda for today?” I ask. “Four meetings ahead of you, two assignments due soon,” my phone says, then pings me with my Daily Challenge text message. Today I’m told to try to take 5,000 steps. Totally doable, I think, then reach for my body-monitoring armband and slide it up onto my biceps. My phone connects to it via Bluetooth, and begins registering my movement as I head to the kitchen. I open the fridge, grab the milk, then pour a bowl of cereal, pulling up my phone’s diet tracker to scan the bar codes on each container for an accurate calorie count.

“We’d better finish the milk — it spoils tomorrow,” my husband says, and I realize it’s the first time we’ve spoken this morning. I grimace apologetically, and flip my phone face-down on the table.

 

I love my smartphone. It’s become a second brain in my pocket that’s changed how I process information. It’s with me every waking moment — and the sleeping moments, too — tracking my daily habits. And through my constant e-mail and Facebook activity, and the personal documentation of my life via Twitter and Instagram photos, it’s become the lens through which I see the world. All day long, I find myself instinctively reaching for my phone, using it as a tool to validate my existence.

But lately, my smartphone and I have taken our relationship to the next level. I provide it with ever-more-intimate details about my life. Last year, for example, I set a few goals for myself. I wanted to lose some weight, save money, and run a half marathon. With only a few app downloads, my phone became a trainer, life coach, and confidant. It now knows what I eat, how I sleep, how much I spend, how much I weigh, and how many calories I burn (or don’t) at the gym each day. It’s gotten to the point where my phone now somehow knows more about me than anyone else in the world, including my own darling husband. My gadget has become a tiny black mirror, reflecting back how I see myself. Which means things are getting more complicated between us.

Lately, I’ve found myself trying to outsmart my smartphone, fudging my calorie intake when I’ve gone overboard on dessert, or hiding a credit card from my personal-finance app so it doesn’t know about my occasional spending sprees. And then I catch myself: It’s a damn phone. This is insane!

What’s going on here? How is it that I’ve come to feel accountable to a device — my device — one that works for me, not the other way around? I know I can’t be the only one asking these questions, as 30 percent of Americans now own smartphones (and one-third of them have downloaded apps to help them monitor their lives). Right now, something called “behavioral scientists” are hard at work dreaming up technologies to make our phones more and more human in the way they interact with us — and to encourage us to build relationships with them. It turns out that Siri, the iPhone’s wildly popular new personal assistant, is just the beginning. Where are we headed? I wanted to know before things got any weirder between my phone and me.

 

Like I said, I lie to my phone. On the days when I’m exceeding my calorie goal in my weight-loss app, I’ll sometimes tweak the numbers. Or I’ll just avoid using the app at all that day.

But I don’t enjoy the feeling that I’m cheating on my phone. So I reach out to Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of the recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

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  • Andrew

    One thing I worry about is that these apps can further exaggerate the relevance of surrogate or intermediate outcomes to our health, so that we are pushed to produce the best lab test results, instead of living the most healthful lives that fit with our goals and values.

    Too many patients are already obsessed with the test. For example, a survey of people with diabetes found that one in four considered their hemoglobin A1c levels to be a more important outcome than even death, stroke or heart attack!
    (Murad MH, Shah ND, Houten HKV, et al. Individuals with diabetes preferred that future trials use patient-important outcomes and provide pragmatic inferences. J Clin Epidemiol. Jul 2011(7):743-748.)

    Such distortions occur when the first thing clinicians talk to their patients about is their test results. Patients know they’ll get gold stars for good lab tests and a harrumph for missing the mark.

    Sure, people with diabetes should be aware of hemoglobin A1c, heart attack survivors should track their LDL, and so on. But we should not let these numbers consume our attention far out of proportion with their actual usefulness to promoting health.

    Smartphone apps are great at tracking numbers, but can any track how many times we…