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Facebook likes might lead to the world depicted in "Her," a new study says

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 13, 2015

From The News Desk

A new study has found that, after collecting information from Facebook, a computer can guess a person's broad psychological patterns better than their friends and family. In some ways, the computers actually knew a person better than they knew themselves.

Researchers conducted the study by asking 86,220 volunteers to answer a 100-question personality test and provide access to their Facebook likes. At least some of the data was gathered through a Facebook application called myPersonality, a service that requires users to provide their explicit consent to have their anonymized data used to conduct scientific research.

The software's guessing ability improves as it analyzes more likes: it can guess better than co-workers with just 10 likes, better than friends or roommates with 70 likes, and better than parents or siblings with 150 likes. The average person has around 227 likes, which means in many cases the computer can guess more about them than almost anyone else.

Spouses did manage to outperform the computer, however, so Facebook users can take comfort in the knowledge that another human being might know more about them than a computer. (Provided they're married, of course.) Or at least they will be able to until they like more than 300 things on Facebook -- then the computer outperformed spouses, too.

The computer even outperforms the user filling out the questionnaire on topics like physical health, substance abuse, and political attitudes. Robots with access to nothing more than a list of Facebook likes are more aware of these things than the walking meat sack that actually holds these opinions or abuses these substances.

This is the information marketers use to display advertisements across the Web. They know more about who consumers are than their own co-workers, friends, and family. Soon they'll probably be able to guess more about someone than that person's spouse. The researchers, in an understatement, say this might pose "challenges" for privacy.

On the plus side, the researchers think "the human-computer interactions depicted in science fiction films such as Her seem to be within our reach" -- which means everyone might be able to find their artificial soulmate. All it would take is a few hundred Facebook likes, a little bit of machine learning, and those fancy earpieces Joaquin Phoenix wore.