We’ve created tools that have helped us achieve amazing feats, but what could we achieve once our tools are smart enough to be our partners?
To be happy. That, according to the Dalai Lama, is the purpose of life. Aristotle touted happiness as humanity’s highest aim. You may not agree but it’s a good bet that, in your own life, living well and doing well in your chosen pursuits are ideas you can get behind.
To that end, creatives and inventors are developing new products that can help us cross the gap between simply wanting to live well and actually doing so, or setting goals and accomplishing them. These devices work by giving us the prompts and motivation we need — a sort of “Behavioral Nudge,” if you will — to drive our intentions into actions.
Soon enough these technologies will be all around us, helping us make smarter decisions, or positive tweaks in our habits and routines. Put simply, they will help us to help ourselves.
Today, the self-improvement industry is worth about $10.4 billion in the United States alone and is expected to grow by some 5.5% each year, according to a report by Marketdata Enterprise. Where once the self-help blockbusters were often guides to practical spirituality, the new guard of books, seminars and websites offer an air of veneration to the simple art of living practically. It is the guiding message behind one of the few industries that has actually gained momentum during the recession.
It’s natural to desire getting the most out of our lives. The idea that we could be more productive or creative, that we could make better decisions, that we could have more time to pursue our passions, or that — hidden just over the hurdles of our own self-doubt or inexperience — there lies some revolutionary product or service that we could offer the world. These thoughts are the foundations of individual aspiration and human progress as a whole.
Instead of sage advice from the pages of books, or the sermons of professional life-coaches, the next generation of self-improvement aides will likely be more subtle, but also more ubiquitous and personal. We see its early incarnations on people’s wrists in products like the Samsung Gear Fit, Jawbone’s Up and the Nike+ FuelBand. Instead of striving to match our lifestyles to ready-made formulas for success, we will be able to organize and learn from insights into our own unique biologies, personalities, activities, and individual challenges.
“We may well see wearable devices and/or home and workplace sensors that can help us make ongoing lifestyle changes and provide early detection for disease risks, not just disease,” said Aron Roberts, a software developer at the University of California-Berkeley, in a recent Pew Research study.
“We may literally be able to adjust both medications and lifestyle changes on a day-by-day basis or even an hour-by-hour basis, thus enormously magnifying the effectiveness of an ever more understated medical delivery system.”
One example of this, created by design student Lucas Neumann, is Bossy. The concept tool that entrepreneurs and the self-employed can use to help them better manage their time. The device, which sits paperweight-like on the user’s desk, syncs with different apps, calendars, to-do lists, social media and even wearables. Over the course of a workday, Bossy provides a curated look at the different responsibilities or potential distractions weighing on the person’s time.
That data is then ordered by importance, and the top three priorities are displayed on Bossy’s screen. Through user interaction — such as reordering, snoozing or completing those tasks — Bossy will learn and adapt to the individual’s established habits, and create opportunities for cultivating new ones through helpful prompts or reminders.
In effect, user and device work together to define a functional workflow based on realistic expectations.
Some people, however, might prefer a more “hands-off” device quite literally.
There are plenty of apps out there designed to help shopaholics reign in their daily spending, but an Australian company called Credit Card Finder thinks that just knowing how much you spend may not be enough to curb that behavior. After conducting a survey which found that two out of every three credit card holders spends more than $500 each month, and 45% of them fail to pay off the full balance, they developed the iBag, a GPS-enabled purse that will lock itself shut if its wearer is in danger of overspending.
The lock is triggered when the purse senses that the owner is nearing a favorite store, or during the hours when they are most likely to go shopping. It will even send a text to a trusted contact letting them know you may be about to have a moment of weakness.
The concept, admittedly extreme in its execution, is meant to highlight the problem of overspending on credit, but it also serves as a good example of how these assistive technologies can tell a story about our personal goals and the ways that we interact with the world at large.
According to a Juniper Research press release, revenues from smart wearable devices are expected to reach $19 billion by 2018. As this and other smart technology markets grows, so will the amount of data available to organize and analyze. Beyond the individual, everyday, improvements or changes this makes possible, there will also be a shift in the way we understand one another.
“We’ll have a picture of how someone has spent their time, the depth of their commitment to their hobbies, causes, friends and family,” said Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in response to a recent survey by the Pew Research Internet Project.
“This will change how we think about people, how we establish trust, how we negotiate change, failure and success.”
The self-improvement industry is turning to technology for its solutions, and so are we. The form these devices will take still presents an incredible frontier, but it’s one that we are creating for ourselves. Instead of wristbands and activity trackers, a new generation of Internet-enabled devices — embedded seamlessly into the products we own — will be capable of passively monitoring our behavior, and actively responding at key moments with positive reinforcement.
That’s the Behavioral Nudge.
In this sense, our actions become subject not only to our original intentions, but to artificial intelligence as well. We may yet succeed in harnessing technology to forge new frontiers within ourselves, and isn’t that the greater goal?
After all, the net effect of successful self-improvement is a world in which we all might feel more empowered, and more enabled, to work together towards a common good.
That’s something we can all be happy about.