• Dr. Timothy Smith

Alexa, Who’s Right? How Our AI Devices Are Studying Our Fights


Photo Source: Flickr


Imagine the following scenario:


Boyfriend, "Why are you so upset?"


Girlfriend, "You promised to take care of the dinner reservations two weeks ago, and now it is too late to get a table for Saturday night. You always blow things off!"


Boyfriend, "You didn't ask two weeks ago. It was just a few days ago. You never give me enough time."


Alexa chimes in, "Excuse me, it sounds like a fight's about to start. Before things escalate, note that your girlfriend did ask you two weeks ago and again ten days ago to make the reservations. I can replay the conversations for you. Just say 'replay conversations,' or I can help you to resolve your differences with a few recommended mediation techniques."



With smart speakers such as Amazon's Alexa or Google's Assistant installed and listening in on 87.7 million US homes and nearly as many adult Americans--77.5 million of them—using wearable health care devices such as Fitbit or Apple Smartwatch, companies now access unprecedented amounts of human behavioral and health data. (statistica.com, nih.gov) Such a massive trove of information does not go unused. Artificial intelligence provides the tools to analyze such information to better understand human behavior, judge the quality of relationships, and even predict which relationships have a chance to last.


Quality of life research conducted by Adela Timmons and Theodora Chaspari at the University of Southern California used artificial intelligence to automatically detect couple conflicts in real-time from voice and data from wearables such as blood pressure, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels. (ieee.org) Comparing the words people say and the tone they use in everyday conversation in contrast to a conflict permits artificial intelligence to discover patterns in behavior, speech, and physiology that distinguish conflicts from other types of interaction. In an interview with Timmons and Chaspari, they noted that their artificial intelligence tools could detect couple's conflicts in 86% of cases, but they also said they want to improve that accuracy to misclassify any disputes. (youtube.com) Timmons and Chaspari note that they cannot yet predict a conflict before it starts, but that is an active research area.

At eHarmony, one of the world's most extensive dating services, they annually collaborate with the Imperial College London to examine the future of dating and summarize their findings in a report. One report titled "The Future of Dating Report 2018: Smart Devices Will Predict If Your Relationship Is on the Rocks," looks at the ways artificial intelligence will influence dating and relationships. In the report, one section focuses on the potential for artificial intelligence to predict relationship problems and even step in to coach couples through a difficult passage. (eharmony.co.uk) The authors add, "Most importantly of all, it [AI] can point out where our communication with a partner or match is proving ineffective, helping us better resolve arguments or open up conversations."


Some of the patterns that artificial intelligence uses to detect a fight involve people switching to the use of certain flashpoint words such as "always," "never," "I," "me," and "mine." Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., notes in his article, "Don't Debate Your Partner's "Always" and "Never" Statements," that, "However heated their arguments might become, couples are routinely advised by therapists to avoid addressing their partner with the incendiary words "always" and "never." (psychologytoday.com) These words can expand a conflict rather than bring it closer to a resolution by further isolating the other person in the conflict. Artificial intelligence uses more than just words as cues; it incorporates vocal tone and pitch. Moreover, artificial intelligence will continuously know our relationships' status by adding physiological data such as heart rate.


Smart speakers in nearly 90 million homes in the US listen to our lives' verbal communications, and wearable health monitors collect data such as heart rate, sleep, oxygen levels from tens of millions of adults a day. Such rich and vast data gives companies using artificial intelligence an unprecedented and detailed comprehension of our behavior and the quality of our relationships. For example, researchers developed artificial intelligence that can detect a couple fighting in real-time, and now smart robots can intervene with suggestions to soften the conflict and suggest language to help resolve the conflict. The question now shifts from can we detect a couple dispute to what should we do with this capability. Some may welcome the intrusion of an AI to help out with conflict resolution, while others may want nothing to do with it. We need to look carefully at whether this ultimately helps or harms us.



Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.



You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.