Why We Need a Human ‘Intention Genome’

Dan Ariely has devoted his career to scrutinizing the bizarre logic that often guides human behavior—and amassing the evidence that exposes us as incorrigible liars and hypocrites, irrational decision-makers, and incompetent money managers. His latest projects poke at humans’ pathological addiction to procrastination and poor time management.

Yet for a guy who began his research by studying the psychology of pain—in part because he had experienced so much of his own when he was 18 and suffered severe burns after a flare exploded next to him—Ariely isn’t a career misanthrope. The professor of behavioral economics at Duke University is shifting a lot of his attention today toward exploring a much more hopeful question: Can technology—especially AI—help humans reverse eons of irrational behavior and bad habits that seem hard-coded in our DNA? Ariely believes it can, and believes that it will start with AI-oriented software and tools that can create what he calls an “intention genome” for every individual—tools to help align our unlimited aspirations and goals with our very limited time on earth.

Ariely has taken his own step in that direction as co-founder of Timeful, a new time-management app that taps into machine intelligence to create personalized daily schedules aligned to priorities and goals. We asked him to explain why humans are in such dire need of technology’s help.

What excites you most about where we’re headed with technology?

So far, technology has helped us dramatically improve the physical world. All of a sudden we can write, we can talk over great distances, we can climb great buildings with elevators and escalators and so on.

But we haven’t done the same thing for cognitive limitations. I’m hoping that technology will make it easier for us to achieve things that are more difficult that have to do with what do we decide to spend our precious financial, time, and social resources on? How can technology help us make fewer mistakes? How can we make sure we don’t sacrifice the future for the present?

What worries you the most?

What worries me is that it’s not clear we’re going in that direction. I think that as technology improves, much of the improvement in technology is actually making things worse. Think about Facebook. It has lots of wonderful uses. But you can ask the question, to what degree is this helping people be more productive in the long run? And to what extent is Facebook not optimizing something important in the long run, but simply optimizing something in the short term? For example, Facebook would probably be very happy if you checked Facebook for three hours every day rather than one hour, even though in the long term you would be less productive, have less money, and be more distracted from important things.

To me, this sort of myopic optimization—short-term optimization on behalf of companies when they control our environment and they can get us to behave in a way that is not in our best long-term interest—is frightening. I think more and more, companies try to distract us. They try to distract us on our computers, phones and on TV. Our goals get sacrificed for the benefit of the short-term goals of those companies. And because of that, we’re getting more and more tempted—we’re less able to execute on our long-term goals. The question is, will we start developing technologies that can help solve this?

Let’s assume we won’t solve the Facebook issue anytime soon. How else could we tackle this problem of distraction?

One example is electronic wallets. The way electronic wallets are built these days, they’re mostly about getting people to spend money faster without thinking about it. Think about Apple Pay and this idea that you go into Starbucks, take stuff out and you don’t even charge anything. You just walk out and they know who you are and what you took, and they charge you a month later on your credit card. What all of those things create is higher temptation, lower personal accountability, and lack of thinking about the future.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Imagine how we could create technologies that would get people to think extra carefully about spending, so that every time you’re about to go into a coffee shop, you would think about, where is this money coming from? What would you not be able to do? Is it over or under your budget? Technology doesn’t have to be about temptation at the moment, but that’s the direction we’re headed.

You’ve shown how irrational we can be with money, ethics, and other issues. Why do you think lousy time management is the biggest problem that AI can help solve?

Because I think the technology is becoming available and that it’s possible. Let’s say I wanted to solve obesity. I would have to control all supermarkets, all restaurants, and I would have to control your kitchen. In principle, that’s possible, if you want to give me permission. But it’s going to be very tough. With money, same thing. Again, I would have to control all credit cards, electronic wallets, and so on.

Time management is actually more straightforward. The reason is that most of us use a calendar. A calendar is this thing that when we see it, and we see how things are set up for us, there’s a likelihood that we will actually execute in that order. If you think about food, money, and calendars, calendars right now provide the highest opportunity for change.

Why should we focus on new technology for calendars? I’ve got 5 calendar apps.

There is a beautiful study where they gave half the people a lecture on the importance of getting a vaccination, and only 3 percent of the people went. They gave the other half the same lecture, but they also asked them to indicate on their calendar when they were going to go. In that group, 26 percent of the people went to get vaccinations. Not everybody wants to get vaccinated. But the idea is that we have intentions, and unless they get specified in a concrete way on the calendar, they’re unlikely to be carried out. The calendar is an incredibly good tool for that.

Is this what you think the creation of an “intention genome” will solve?

Yes. The idea of the intention genome is that you can think about intentions as characterized in a multidimensional space. For example, if you tell me that you want to go running, I know that it’s something that takes between 30 minutes and an hour. You could do it either most likely before work, or with some likelihood later in the day, and the exact hour doesn’t matter so much. If you tell me you want to do laundry, I know that it’s something that doesn’t require much cognitive skills or attention, that you can do it at home, it takes about two hours, and during the same time, you could do some other things, as well.

If you tell me that you have a presentation to work on, I know already that it’s something that you need to focus on, maybe use your most productive hours of the day to do it, that then you might need a little break from it, and you could come back and do some of the other stuff. I also know it has a deadline, and I know that if you finish it before the deadline, you would not be stressed, and if you work on it up to the last moment, you will be stressed.

Every intention can be represented in terms of when could it be carried out, how important it is, and how much capacity it needs, and can you do something else at the same time? And how long can you focus on it in one sitting, and do you have to finish it in one sitting, or can you spread it over multiple days? Does it actually get better if you break it over multiple days or not? We can represent all of the intentions this way. And the moment we do, it gives us tremendous power to figure out when to schedule things for people. That’s basically the idea, that we understand the fundamental attributes of what people want to do, and we schedule them taking into account those fundamental attributes.

Do you see AI solutions on the horizon that could help reverse some of our bad habits?

Absolutely. Personally, I have huge challenges with time management, so I’m really enjoying Timeful. But I think that other solutions could be helping people make decisions about food and make decisions about money.

Let’s just take money. Money is all about now versus later, which is a very tough computation, and it’s about what are we getting now and what are we giving up? This is very complex. If I asked you to cut down $500 from your spending now, what should you cut? What’s the best way to cut it and not lose a lot from the quality of life? It’s not clear what the right answer is. But maybe I could help you figure out the right approach.

Similarly with food—if I asked you what is the kind of food that you would eat that would be the most compatible with your lifestyle and diet, how would you figure it out? You’re supposed to keep everything in mind and do the experiments and add things and subtract things. That’s very, very tough. But with AI and new technologies and software, we can help people with those things.

I think that data and technology approaches that look at what we do, how we live and that map other elements to it, such as happiness and quality of life, can actually help us make much better decisions. That’s my hope.

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