Our dog and our cat - approximately the same size - like to lick each other's face. It looks like they're making out. It's extraordinarily cute, except when they lay across my chest and do it. That's only cute until one of them licks my chin as if to get me in on the threesome. That's when things feel awkward. (So far I've declined the invitation.)

Anyway, it makes me wonder if my body has an easily measurable response to cuteness. I know I become instantly happier when I see animals doing adorable things, but is there a cheap and easy way to monitor my brain's change in happiness? For the sake of today's post, let's say we can measure a person's happiness, arousal, relaxation, and other positive physical reactions in real time. And let's assume that while the cost of such monitoring equipment might be expensive today, the technology will eventually drop to a consumer level. You'll put on a hat with sensitive brainwave sensors, connect the hat to your computer via Bluetooth, and you're all set.

This is where things get interesting. Imagine software that monitors changes in brainwaves and learns by trial and error which kinds of images and videos work best for a given individual. Maybe your favorite "awwww" experience comes from videos of penguins shuffling around while I prefer waterfalls and rainbows. The software starts with a random slideshow of images on the Internet and records your brain's reaction for each. You just relax and let it happen. Over time, the software learns what relaxes you, what arouses you, and what pumps you up for exercise.

Now let's add a few layers. Sound is next. The software would experiment with music, engine noises, nature sounds, and more. Again, the software would measure and record how each sound influences you.

Next we do smells. I think the technology already exists to generate different odors. Imagine the software releasing a pumpkin pie scent, vanilla, perhaps some new car odor, and each time it measures your brain's response.

Now let's say you're sitting in a high-end massage chair that has dozens of settings. The chair goes through each possible setting while the brainwave hat figures out which combinations of pulsing and vibrating and intensity works best for you.

Let's assume the software only allows you to experience one sensation at a time during the learning phase. So the slideshow wouldn't be happening at the same time as the massage chair or the smell or music. Once the software learns your response to each isolated stimulation, it can later intelligently combine them for a stronger total experience.

We know people need lots of variety in stimulation to avoid getting bored, so after the software learns your preferences it continuously seeks out different versions of the same general stimulation by data mining other people's preferences across its database. The software might learn that people who get aroused at the sound of a Ferrari engine noise also like images of skiing. A simpler example is that people who like one baby picture will probably like another.

So far, this all sounds feasible, if not today, certainly in your lifetime. The real question is how much control could the software exert over a typical person? I think you'd be surprised.

Visual images alone would have only a limited impact on a person, but adding the massage chair, smell, and sound at the same time would be an immersive sensory experience. I think the total package would have an impact comparable to a powerful narcotic, and it might be just as addictive.

In today's world, finding pleasure is a somewhat random process guided by a little bit of planning. If you know you like nature, you can plan a hike, but sometimes the weather is bad and a rattlesnake ruins your happy-go-lucky mood. In the future, technology will be able to figure out what you like best and provide it in a setting with no offsetting negatives.

That's something to look forward to.
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +31
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Aug 6, 2012
Are you at the Olympics Scott? I would be if I had your budget, it's fair to say.

Go Team GB!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 6, 2012
Hey, Scott, are you on vacation?
I hope you're having a good time.
Aug 3, 2012
In my experience, the cutest stuff available on the net is all Japanese. Here are a couple of examples. Maybe you can use these somehow in your research.


Aug 2, 2012
Measures of the activity in the left prefontal cortex showed that it correlates very well with happiness. Numerous experiments were done using this tool, and notably a few years ago an experiement hit the news when it showed that meditating monks had a level of left prefontal cortex activity never observed in the general population.
Aug 1, 2012
We already have a great deal of electronic interaction. What really makes life worthwhile is direct participation. People are already spending hours on the various social networks, at the expense of physical activity and real time with real frieds.

Just think "Total Recall"
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2012

Adams is doing his part to bring on the Great Collapse.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 31, 2012
Your software plan is just one software update short of Total Recall
Jul 28, 2012
Two problems with this, but not insurmountable.

It assumes that it is the seeing that is what brings the happiness. But for many if not most people it is the attaining that does it. Having shoes is not what brings the happiness, it is buying new ones. Seeing a level 100 character is not what brings the happiness, but having earned it. When you separate out the reward from what it took to get it you might also remove the joy in having it.

It also assumes that you will like the same things. Maybe after 2 or 200 puppies you don't care about them anymore. Maybe you need something new. Repetition may work for some people but not all.
Jul 28, 2012
Stimulating your pleasure sensors too much can be deadly:

see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_by_Ecstasy

"Death by Ecstasy is a novella in the Known Space universe by Larry Niven. It is the first of five Gil Hamilton detective stories, and provides most of the backstory for the character.

A belter, Owen Jennison, is found dead on Earth in a locked Los Angeles apartment. His death is an apparent suicide. Hamilton, a friend and former crewmate of Jennison, is called to the scene to investigate. He finds Owen with a droud (a wirehead's transformer) plugged into the back of his head. The latter apparently starved himself to death while continuously stimulating the pleasure center of his own brain.

Hamilton, refusing to believe that his friend would commit suicide or turn wirehead, suspects foul play."
Jul 27, 2012
I see privacy concerns, or worse. As inventor and administrator of this service, what is your response when you discover that I really like, what really, really floats my boat, are images of women being abused in the most sordid ways imaginable, with matching sound effects? I've never DONE anything like that, may never do anything like that... but can you take the chance? This isn't like revealing someone's !$%* surfing history - you'd have physiological proof that this is something that does it for me on a deep level. Would you have a responsibility to inform the authorities to get me on some sort of register?
Or... would you be ethically motivated to knock up as much as possible of this material, as convincingly simulated as you could manage (because my subconscious will notice the difference and only responds to things that are very, very realistic), and supply as much to me as possible, because as many previous posters have pointed out, actually being served up the stuff every day would numb me to it to the point that it would no longer get me off... which would be a good thing, wouldn't it?
It's a given that I think if the machine were given entirely free reign to maximise our stimulation and pleasure levels, we'd find that the things that give the most pleasure to the most people reveal us to be other than the civilised creatures we like to think we are.
Jul 26, 2012
I have a hat that does that already. I wear it inside my head. The thing that measures how my brain likes it is called consiousness, it also stores the experience in memory and seeks out new things to avoid boredom. It is kind of amazing. If I like to hike and the weather does not permit it, this software is quite flexible, it finds alternatives quite easily. It has an almost inexhaustive list of things to do - unless of course what I want is boredom and like to complain about it.
Jul 26, 2012
You've described the "feelies" from Brave New World or as other people have stated, you're willing to just plug into the Matrix. I'll take real life with it's randomness. I know that the daily Dilberts provide a smile or laugh most days...
Jul 26, 2012
The possibilities of this for me as a programmer are enormous. Spend half an hour relaxing someone and then introduce the most jarring note possible for like 5 seconds - then go back to the cutesy stuff - or any one of all sorts of such variations specifically designed to mess with people's heads. (Sorry, I should probably have been a Nazi mad scientist).
Jul 26, 2012
Scott, the 1970's called. They have a mood ring for you.
Jul 26, 2012
Im pretty sure that the software will be able to keep changing the experience in ways that keeps it fresh and enjoyable, hbmindia, if not at first then in version 2.0
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 26, 2012
Here's a start on the sensor helmet:

Jul 26, 2012
All these sensory inputs may work for some time but the human mind and body gets used to things pretty fast.
Very quickly whatever videos or sounds make you happy will stop having the desired effect - you will need something new to feel good once more.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 26, 2012
Again, the real-life experience is much better AND easier to accomplish then the virtual one.

Imagine you like canooing on the river, this is what makes you happy. Now you have to simulate the rocking of the boat, the splashes of cold water on your skin, the sun shining through the trees and on your face, the physical exercise, the competietive element, the social interactions with other people that are with you in the same boat or in other boats, the danger (real danger of getting hurt is part of what makes the experience more intens and therefor better), the surroundings, the notion ofactally moving, etc etc etc.

I'd like to see a machine do that.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 26, 2012
I beg to differ. Now all of the sudden every marketer in the world is trying to show me pumpkin scented puppy dogs selling me smart phones. (Lets assume this technology real time could also be used to personalize smell-o-vision ads to me - perhaps I mistakenly opted in the first time they successfully nailed my personal formula.) Then, like that awesome song that gets played too much on the radio, my favorite things are one by one knocked off as my brain - which once though pumpkin scented puppy dogs were rare, cute, and exciting - sees them everywhere. Adapting, I now begin to slowly prefer kittens playing with babies. Only to have that TOO taken away as the marketers adapt to the new data. Long story short, I think we inherently value rare associations . . . the natural outcome of this technology is to make them common, which would in turn remove their value and their power (joy?) over us. At best we would always be chasing the next one. At worse, happiness would be killed. I blame the marketers.
-7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 25, 2012
It would ruin the surprise element, and you yourself have written that surprise/novelty/randomness is the key element in enjoyment.

If we simulated cuteness of animals, that would also be immoral. because animals are conscious creatures, and any innovation which causes us to neglect animals could cause literally Holocaust levels of suffering every day. (That's assuming, say, ten dogs counts for a human, which seems a reasonable standard. A hundred dogs for a human leads to e.g. a Democrat being worth ten Republicans, which I don't think the Republicans would consent to.)

Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog