What if a computer could predict your behavior and understand your personality better than your coworkers, friends, siblings, and even your spouse do?
According to researchers from the University of Cambridge and Stanford University, it's already possible - by studying your Facebook likes.
In their paper published 12 January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), researchers Youyou Wu, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell revealed that a computer algorithm analyzing study participants' Facebook likes was better at judging five key personality traits than the people who should know them best.
The study also found that the computer model was better than personal acquaintances at predicting life outcomes such as substance use, political attitudes and physical health - and "for some outcomes, they even outperform the self-rated personality scores."
Although the researchers noted that humans are still better at assessing personality traits that require "subtle cognition or that are less evident in digital behavior," they proposed that computers judging peoples' personalities could eliminate inconsistencies and biases in human judgments, such as job applications.
"Computers don’t care if you're a man, woman, old, young, black, or white," Kosinski said in an interview with Wired.
Wu and Kosinski, however, acknowledged that the technology could have troubling consequences, and may lead people to further distrust digital platforms such as social networks, search engines and web browsers that gather reams of personal information about us.
While it's possible that mining personal data could help people to make better decisions about what jobs to pursue, what products to buy, and even in choosing romantic partners, we may not like what governments and corporations are able to do with all this information about us.
As a result, the researchers said it's essential for users to have "full control over their digital footprints," and policymakers should support "privacy-protecting laws and technologies."
In light of this study, and the marketing and advertising dollars that flow to companies who mine the data we leave everywhere online, it's likely that the technology providers won't want to cede that control.
by John Zorabedian