Computers are learning to read our minds and why this changes everything

By Neil Patrick

In the digital age everything is reduced to numbers. Big data counts everything that can be counted.

But big data conceals as much as it reveals. Big data scientists argue that their algorithms enable fine judgements to be made across billions of pieces of data. Yet there is idiocy embedded within many algorithms.

Many of us find ourselves enraged by the clumsy ways simplistic counting algorithms determine who gets noticed online and who doesn’t.

This quantitative analysis is the strength of big data and currently its main weakness. But most algorithms cannot count the things that are often most important, i.e. the qualitative aspects. Like value, trust, goodwill, personality.

But this is about to change…

IBM Watson has already built artificial intelligence that does exactly this. It’s called Personality Insights. Follow this link and you can try it out. Just load a thousand or so words of a blog post or something you have written and the programme will analyse and quantify your personality.

I put it to the test with one of my own blog posts. This is what it said about me:

You are inner-directed and skeptical.

You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them. You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. And you are calm-seeking: you prefer activities that are quiet, calm, and safe.

You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You consider independence to guide a large part of what you do: you like to set your own goals to decide how to best achieve them.

I could pick faults with this analysis maybe. But broadly speaking, I was impressed by how well it managed to interpret who I am and how I think.

The Personality Insights programme isn’t the end of the road. It’s the start of it. AI is going to become perfectly capable very soon of understanding the very essence of who we are, how we think and what motivates us.

Imagine the implications of how when sooner rather than later, software such as this is incorporated into social media platforms, into blog platforms, into LinkedIn?

The currently clumsy counts of likes, followers, shares etc could be supplemented by rich data which permits far more nuanced metrics about us.

The way will be open for platforms to group, sort and rank us in ways that they have never been able to do before.

And the gamers who exploit the clumsy metrics will be put in their rightful place.

But only if the platform owners recognize and seek to rectify the simplistic and unhelpful ways they use big data to judge who is important and who isn't.

We have to hope they use this power for our good and not just theirs.


  1. Eerily accurate. I input three separate pieces from my magnum opus and it delivered insightful results reflecting differences in the characters' personalities as well as my own consistent set of core values. Fascinating! So, AI? Or simply machine reading machine?

    1. Thanks for putting it to another test Juliet and sharing your findings. I consider it to be AI, at least insomuch as it is doing something that has previously only been possible through the application of human intelligence. And critically it is almost infinitely scaleable and consistent unlike us!
      P.S. I am in no way associated with or receive any consideration from IBM Watson...yet ;-)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Jim! Have you tried it out? No pressure, but if you do I'd love to hear what you think.