Big data dating: romance goes digital

Films such as Her or Ex Machina have given movie goers a glimpse of what might happen when tech tangles with romance. Back in the real world, though, IT is having more of an impact on our love lives than some might like to admit.

Dating sites have been around since the 1990s, with, one of the largest, launching in 1995. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 15 percent of U.S. adults said they had used online dating sites or mobile apps. And this is just the start.

A report last year by online dating firm and Imperial College Business School showed how the Internet of Things (IoT) could have a massive impact on how people find a partner.

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While today the choice on whether to see someone on a dating site may be largely based on the pictures and words they post online, with the IoT you could have a lot more to go on. You might be able to see the music they like, for instance. Or their spending habits. Or fitness level.

Most likely this data won’t be on display for all to see. But dating site users tend to be happy about sharing a fair amount about themselves. And the IoT could offer an extra window into someone’s life, and make it simpler to find a new partner.

Even today, dating sites crunch a lot of numbers to help find the best matches. At eHarmony, for instance, a so-called Unique Compatibility System scans the data on users for would-be kindred spirits, based on their personality traits and their outlook on life.

“It is based on research into what makes for a long-term relationship,” says eHarmony spokeswoman Rachael Lloyd.

“On top of this, the technology we use doesn’t remain stationery,” she says; “eHarmony is constantly changing, using machine learning and additional research to further improve the service.”

Dating firms argue that adding more data and technology into the mix, like wearables and smart homes, will enrich the process.

The eHarmony Future of Dating report predicts 4 million people will use smart tech to help find a partner by 2026, just in the United Kingdom alone.

If data sharing happens in a grown-up way, that’s great news, but common sense dictates that dating site or app users should take care with what they share. Just as Facebook or Twitter users must judge how much personal information they should post, the same goes for people using online dating sites, otherwise their data could end up where they don’t want it. Most dating sites already caution against giving out phone numbers, for instance.

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It’s likely possible that the upcoming generation of digital daters will wise to the issues. In 2015, Pew Research found U.S. teenagers commonly used social media for flirting and making new friends, and many had already learned how to guard themselves and their privacy.

“One-quarter of all teens have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable,” says Pew.

Further down the line, technology could offer even more ways of taking the risks out of dating. “Virtual reality dating could become the norm in the next 25 years,” Lloyd predicts.

“We will reach a point where all five human senses could be simulated to create a full sensory virtual reality,” she says.

This kind of date would be just like a real one, she says. You could hold your date’s hand or smell their scent. But you would not be with them in person. Depending on how the date goes, that could be a shame… or a relief.


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