Apropos of nothing here's a short story on online dating I've been working on.
As with so many anecdotes the idea behind this one traces its origins to a bar. I got talking to a chap who worked for an large gambling establishment. We had a shared interest in big data; I told him about some Twitter metadata projects, he told me about the information they had on their customers (quite a lot) and how they use it (you can probably imagine).
Fast forward to a similar pub and once more I'm discussing big data. This time it's with a sales guy who tells me I wouldn't recognise the name of the company he works for. I don't push it. His company specialises in talking to companies that produce biometric data from pedometers, phones, workout trackers, sleep cycle apps, calorie counters and fitness games. They buy this data, aggregate it, remove personal information insofar as is required by privacy policies, and then sell the results to interested parties. Actuaries love the stuff. A few drinks later he tells me that some large companies are interested in seeing aggregated data on their own employees so they can better haggle for cheaper health insurance. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, and if employees freely hand over access to employers and benefit from cheaper coverage, what's the trouble?
Later I read that Target (a chain of American stores) had become so proficient at processing big data that they could reliably tell if a customer was pregnant based on changes to their buying habits, down to the trimester.
It's not uncommon for people to hand over their driving data (via, say, mobile phone apps) to car insurers for a cheaper premium. When will we hand over our fitness data for health insurance? And when we do, with all the best intentions, what will they do with it?
Anyway, on to the story.
"Can we help you find love?"
Sarah had lost an entire evening answering health insurance questions. None had been quite so unexpected.
"We have a discount for people in long term relationships. Studies have shown that companionship promotes mental wellbeing, positive lifestyle choices, and can extend healthy lifespan by up to 14%."
Sarah paused longer than she intended. The agent's chirpiness seemed inexhaustible - they would, she had learned, take her silence as an opportunity to talk at length on any topic. Her Friday night held nothing more exciting than insurance calls: she had little interest in discussing her love life. Despite the downsides she remained silent.
"If you're not in a relationship right now we can help. We're launching a new dating app for select members and you meet our criteria. As the service is still in trial mode your feedback will mean a significant reduction in your premium."
Sarah asked herself when she'd last opened Tindr. Dick pics. PlentyOfFish. Dick pics. Even Scrabble was a source of obscene messages from strange men. Why add to the collection?
"We're quite different from other services", the agent seemed to sense her concern. "No one sees pictures, ages, income levels, names, or locations. There's no obligation to meet or communicate with anyone. What you'll get access to is all the data we have on them as their insurers. How often they exercise, what their mood is like through the day, stress levels, sleep levels, what they eat, if they prefer the pub or a good book - there's a lot you can tell from an insurance questionnaire! You can't see all the data directly, of course - that would be a confidentiality issue. But you can ask our LoveMatch app anything you like about potential matches and they'll answer as best they can."
"How's the agent performing?"
Automated phone menus had been used for decades but InsuraTech were the first to produce one that could properly compete with humans. Globally their call centres produced tens of thousands of hours of recorded speech each month, most words predictable responses to scripted speeches from the monitors of employees. This had been collected, parsed, analyzed, tested and standardised. New questions were rare. There would be a human element for the foreseeable future but following a year of refinement fewer than one in thirty calls were escalated to a human supervisor. Customers rarely suspected that they were speaking to a machine. To maintain the secrecy of the project they'd avoided layoffs, waiting for natural wastage to reduce their staff numbers and closing sites under an official line of moving the work overseas, taking care to adjust the virtual agents' accents to maintain the facade.
"Good" Paul nodded, before remembering that one syllable answers were something he'd been asked to work on.
"Still having trouble understanding some regional accents. Especially southern Germany. Otherwise people like it. The supervisors wouldn't admit it, but we've been seeing more requests to be put back on to 'the previous agent'."
Paul managed a convincing smile.
He tapped a few keys.
"Seven instances so far this morning. That's above average, but only slightly."
"We've seen a spike in sales since we started matching agent personalities. Take this call, Sarah Gilligan, mid thirties, communications degree, high debt, trying to get her first health insurance before the over 35 government levy kicks in. Gave her agent an educated female voice, a little older. It's likely we'll get her to sign up for the LoveMatch programme. Doubt she'd have bought it from a male agent."
Paul tilted his screen so his supervisor could see Sarah and the agent's transcript update. Her breath rate, tone, and spikes in pitch were charted during the conversation. The markers for pulse and enzyme levels listed as currently unavailable.
"Okay Sarah, based on the information you've provided me on your lifestyle and your new membership of the LoveMatch programme we can offer you a 60% discount on our quoted fee. This discount depends on the information you supplied being and remaining correct. You'll also receive a free fitTracker to help monitor your path to your fitness goals. We'll have this delivered fully charged within twelve hours. Is there anything else I can help you with?"
"Sixteen?" Paul's monitor registered a 74% likelihood of disappointment in Sarah's voice.
"No, six zero. You're young, healthy, have good habits and the LoveMatch discount is significant. And there are strong tax benefits to taking out your first insurance policy before you turn 35. Can I process this for you?"
The analysis of Sarah's answer registered as a plummet in stress mixed with mild disbelief. It was a yes. A larger monitor flashed in the distance, adding a few pixels to the daily sales statistics.
"Nice" - Paul's supervisor thought a moment before continuing - "Let's look into flipping it for the claims line. Give them an agent they really don't want to talk to. Make them uncomfortable when they want cash from us. I'll put in the feature request later today."
Paul sought words to persuade that this was wrong. He found none.
"Can do" was his two syllable reply.
The fitTracker was small, delicate in appearance and more stylish than one would expect from a company founded by actuaries. Sarah slipped it on her wrist and felt it tighten to snug. The InsuraTech logo on its discreet display flashed and morphed into a smiley face before asking permission to connect to her television. She clicked yes and without needing setup the license agreement flashed to her screen. Standing to better read the tiny font she discovered dense legal text. Page one of 14. Her fitTracker gave two options: 'Accept' or 'Pay Full Premium'. This was the 60% discount. She'd given up on ever getting a mortgage; no license agreement could be worth giving up the chance of ever getting health insurance. She chose accept.
"You got eight hours' sleep. Congratulations! Can we make this a daily habit?"
After the license agreement the fitTracker had faded to an analog watch display. Sarah had tried a few different faces and disabled the optional ticking noise but then largely forgot it was there. She had slept well, better than any night in weeks. She saw buttons labelled 'more details' or 'dismiss' and clicked the first.
At first she thought nothing happened, but then a slight vibration drew her attention to her phone. The chart it displayed showed her every move from 11pm till 7:30am, highlighting her deepest and most uninterrupted sleep. Shit. 7:30. She'd overslept. She closed her phone and rushed for the office.
Blinking back tears Sarah cursed a boss who thought a ten minute public dressing down for five minutes' lateness was a good use of anyone's time. Her coworkers were sympathetic in the quiet way of people who do not want to be seen to support the boss's latest target. She struggled through the morning's e-mails earning only slight relief when her boss and the rest of the management team left for their monthly meeting.
Her wrist vibrated. She glowered in annoyance and read:
"I'm sorry this is stressful. Don't forget that your track record of surviving bad days is 100%. I think that's pretty good."
She felt the involuntary beginnings of a smile, and almost on cue the message updated:
"If you have the time and it's appropriate, would you like to try a five minute relaxation exercise? You'll need your phone and your headphones."
Hands still shaking a little she took both from her purse. Not at her desk, but maybe in the toilet? With the managers gone no one would be too worked up over five minutes, she reassured herself, and anything was preferable to staying put. She sat as comfortably as was possible on a mass produced toilet seat, plugged in her headphones and chose 'yes' on her fitTracker.
The video that played on her phone's screen was high definition footage of a chef next to a sliced tomato. Her hands moved with care and precision between the slices, placing the knife and then slowly uncutting the fruit. The footage was reversed. A voice in her right ear told her a story of a monk whose belongings were robbed, and how he had wished to give the thief the joy of seeing a full moon. In her left ear as silky Scottish voice talked her through counting slowly down from one hundred and helped her lower her breath. The voices mixed, the video gave her tingles down her scalp, and gradually the problems of the office waned.
"You've taken control of the situation. Nothing can stop you now!"
She found herself midway between a smile and a grimace as she saw the motivational text. She went back to her desk for a more productive afternoon than she'd expected.
"Pressure makes diamonds! Today was tough but you were tougher. There's a great little park on your way home. Let's take ten minutes for a mental health break."
Her colleagues looked at her when she groaned. She offered no explanation.
She hadn't intended to take the diversion but the gentle tapping at her wrist while walking had been enough to make her take out her phone and see the suggested route. In a former life the park had been a Victorian reservoir. The city grew beyond its capacity and it was abandoned until an enterprising councillor realised it could be changed to a public park with minimal effort. Small, secluded, and underadvertised enough to be rarely visited, it was just a few minutes out of her way. She walked a lap, nodding at an old man ambling through his crossword and watching a swan glide the manmade lake. Another gentle tap on her wrist.
"Doesn't that feel better? Your pulse, adrenaline, and blood pressure are back to normal. You've shaken off the stress; now go rock the rest of your day!"
Rocking the rest of her day involved buying groceries and cooking for one, but she was happy to do it without gnawing thoughts of work. She visited the park three times that week and enjoyed the coffee shop recommended by her fitTracker, despite it pushing decaf.
"Would you like to see some LoveMatch profiles?"
Friday night found Sarah alone on her couch again. The fitTracker felt her change in heart rate slightly before its cameras registered her scowl at the intrusion. The two buttons available to her were "Yes" and "Remind me later".
"How about just one?" the tone of its negotiation triggered memories of someone she couldn't quite place. Smooth, educated, reassuring, it reminded her of a well meaning if interfering older sister.
"Fine then" Sarah spoke to no one in particular as she reached past the 'Remind me later' button. Before she reached 'Yes' her TV turned on and she watched InsuraTech's logo fade to a love heart.
She braced herself, expecting dry stats on steps taken each day and quality of sleep.
Instead a three dimensional avatar swept on to the screen, rotated, and took its place on the left side of her television. Blue of skin and eyeless, the features it had were confined to its physique. This represented Adam: the voice from her wrist explaining further that each match was given an alias in alphabetical order. It added that InsuraTech hoped to find her a match long before they reached Zak.
Adam liked the gym. What the avatar lacked in nostrils it more than made up for in abs. That the text to the right listed his activity levels as high seemed a deliberate understatement. She spoke the words "Sleep cycle" out of surprise to see such information available and saw the same chart her phone had displayed every morning. Well, not quite the same. Adam was an early riser, getting up at 5am even on Sundays. His bedtime rarely fluctuated from 9pm. No abs were worth that pain.
"Show me another" she announced, finding the process altogether more entertaining than she'd expected. She went to the fridge and poured a glass of white wine before settling in on the couch.
She returned to find Brandon waiting. Bald, blue skinned and eyeless, his body seemed more reassuringly human than Adam's. He had the slight pauch and love handles of a man who might be willing to take her out of a Saturday night. She sipped her wine and put her feet up. He might even join her for a glass of wine sometime.
"What is he like?" she spoke to her wrist in the loud and broken rhythm of people who do not trust voice recognition.
"I'm sorry, I don't know how to answer that question, but if you try something more specific I'll do my best."
"Well, what's he do for a living?" Feeling a little less inhibited as the wine took hold she spoke more naturally.
"I'm sorry, for customer privacy reasons I can't share that information. I can tell you a little about his working day if that helps."
She took another sip and wondered how the glass had emptied so quickly. "Go on", she said with a note of friendliness.
"Brandon normally gets to work between 8:55 and 9:15am. His stress levels are generally low with occasional spikes clustering around 1pm and 4:45pm. He has a 96% chance of leaving the office after eight hours work. He averages 2.5 total bouts of exercise a week during his lunch break. This could be either a brisk walk or a relaxed trip to the gym. His mood is significantly higher on Friday evenings than Monday mornings. He laughs more than 82% of our customers."
As the voice came from her wrist Sarah was able to absorb the information while refilling her glass.
"Is he seeing anyone?"
It felt strange to ask her wrist about the relationship status of a naked bald blue man. She giggled and took another mouthful. The soft background music she'd barely noticed jarred to a halt.
"Recommended maximum alcohol consumption for women in their mid thirties is 14 units a week. You have consumed 12."
Naked blue Brandon had been replaced with an InsuraTech health tip. The voice came from her television in the style of someone cautioning metro passengers to stand clear of the doors. The message hung on the screen for a moment before fading back to Brandon.
The wine tasted sour and suddenly the enterprise seemed ridiculous. She went to bed early.
"Okay, what went wrong?"
Paul's eyes scanned the room, reminding himself that eye contact and pausing were considered important. He looked for cues, facial expressions, body position and movement levels. There were ten seated around the white plastic table. This exceeded his comfort level by nine. his response was a reasonable facsimile of calmness, the product of much effort.
"At 9:03pm subject Sarah was presented with her first LoveMatch review. Her calendar was free, her blood pressure and oxytocin levels suggested lower than typical stress levels, and she was not engaged in other activities."
The conference room's monitor filled with a picture of Sarah's face, the shot centered around her nostrils suggesting it was trying to see a pathway to her brain. Automatically reading facial expressions had been solved some time ago: InsuraTech's patents focused on refining and improving the process while adding in other data sources and adapting the technology to work with images taken from wrist height. Paul pushed a button on his watch. The image changed.
"You'll note from the bunching of the eyebrows as well as the rolling of the eyes that Sarah initially displayed reluctance. This observation was supported by slackness of the lower jaw and a sharp exhale of breath, which I will now play."
Sarah's exasperation filled the room, perfectly reproduced through hidden speakers that mimicked the acoustics of her apartment. Paul looked at his colleagues. Some fidgeting. Three pretending they weren't using their phones. One openly using her phone. He made face contact, reminding himself to focus on the eyes. She smiled apologetically with half her face. He couldn't process the other half before her expression changed. He was losing them to boredom. Too much detail for those with an intuitive understanding of social interaction. Pausing briefly to make a note he skipped through fourteen slides before continuing.
"Initial data were positive. Although Sarah didn't experience a romantic response to Adam she did clearly enjoy the process and started engaging with the fitTracker by voice for the first time. She showed a more favourable response to Brandon, and we were able to track what body parts she looked at while her mood was increasing. This data has obvious commercial applicability to our marketing team."
Paul skipped several slides explaining this assessment.
"At 9:31pm the unit's skin sensors registered alcohol levels in excess of that recommended given Sarah's age and BMI. Passing this level three times in one month incurs a penalty on her premium, so the unit warned her."
"That's what it's supposed to do."
The table's seats were split in two camps: LoveMatch and HealthyHabits. They held equal access to Sarah's data and wildly different priorities. Paul looked at Tom as he spoke, reading his flared nostrils, creased forehead, and forward leaning pose. His interruption was not uncharacteristic. Paul read frustration. Anger. Despite a career focusing on healthy habits Tom always looked like he lived off takeaways, five hours' sleep, and a pathological fear of ironing. Simon realised that these traits were negative. That said, it was Tom who had first trialed using customer data to sell targeted ads to gyms, healthy takeaways, sports shops and personal trainers. These were all disguised as HealthyHabits suggestions, all profitable. He'd earned his leeway. As Simon read further, Tom's posture betrayed a certain amount of awkwardness. He was growing wary. Two late Simon realised how long he had been staring and lowered his gaze.
"Look, we all value the work HealthyHabits does here. If nothing else I'm nearly a year without cigarettes thanks to your team. And we're not asking you to stop. We're just asking for a twenty minute window where we can do a presentation without them being nudged."
Paul sat, grateful that his supervisor had stepped in.
"What's the point of telling someone they're nearly at their booze limit twenty minutes late? They'll be way over by then. And you know yourself that we can talk someone out of a cigarette if we get them at the first puff. Why would we give up that for a project we're not even working on? It's not our fault they need a drink to sit through your blue man dance troupe!"
Tom looked at his team, counting those who chuckled, noting those who did not.
"I know I'm asking you to take a temporary hit here, but think of the upside. You'll find a way to monetize this. If anyone can sell gym memberships to women who've just started dating it's you."
Flattery, Simon assumed. His supervisor had a talent for it.
"Our projects aren't all that separate" they continued "When we're successful, people make healthier choices. We get credit for getting people into relationships. You get credit for the healthy habits they start when they have a supportive partner. We can both win here."
"What if they end up with a cake and lager fan? We'll be taking a hit twice."
Although Tom was not yet convinced he was no longer interrupting.
"Trust me. We won't match people up like that. We control the system."
Tom looked at his watch before answering.
"I'd love to spend the day here talking about how you're trying to set people up with smurfs but I could be somewhere else making money. Here's what I'll do: I'll give you six minutes quiet time each side, I'll get psychology to come up with some touchy feely messages for when we interrupt your Avatar porn sessions, and you lot email both our directors thanking me for my team's invaluable contribution. I want to see those words."
The LoveMatch team started to discuss.
"Take it or leave it" Tom said, making for the door. "And you're getting billed for the shrinks."
The LoveMatch team's followon discussion was more a venting of exasperation than any real hope of wringing a better deal from Tom. They sent the email from the conference room.
"I can work on ways to encourage her to check out some more profiles" offered Paul.
"It's in her contract. Just fucking make her." his supervisor slammed their tablet shut and made for the door.
"Extended removal of your FitTracker will result in the loss of your discount."
Sarah paused, clasp half undone. She'd had three offers of LoveMatch profile viewings in the past hour and just wanted an evening of TV. Her fingers hovered over the edge of the strap. She didn't even have enough units left to drink through it without a hit on her premium.
"Fucking fine then." she said, closing the clasp and starting the presentation. Suddenly smiling, she walked past the TV's InsuraTech logo, grabbed her headphones, and went to her bedroom. They could have her TV for twenty minutes.
"Please go back to the sitting room Sarah."
She'd largely ignored the buzzing on her wrist and heavy metal through her headphones had drowned out the unit's speakers. But now the music had been turned down low as the familiar voice commandeered her music player.
"This won't take long Sarah, and you might see someone you like. Repeated failure to participate in LoveMatch sessions will result in the loss of your discount and incur significant costs."
Broken, she walked to the living room and sat on the couch where her fitTracker gently nudged her whenever her attention wandered.
Graham was slight. His build suggested a man fueled by caffeine who regularly forgot to eat. He seemed to live in his office and frequently worked weekends. His days jarred between calm, focused states and high stress.
"Skip" Sarah said, eager to finish.
"You've skipped though the last four, Sarah. You'll have to ask me questions about Graham if you want to continue."
"And if I don't want to continue?"
"Then as per the agreement you signed you'll have to pay the full annual premium by the end of the month."
Sarah glowered at her wrist.
"How many questions do I have to ask to get out of this?"
"At least five, Sarah."
"I don't know, how many pineapples does he eat in a fortnight?"
The fitTracker paused.
"I'm sorry Sarah, I don't have that information. I have some stats on his consumption of citrus fruits if that helps."
Sarah felt a measure of control again.
"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"
"Only questions about Graham are valid, Sarah."
"How much does Graham weigh compared to a goat?"
"Goat weight varies by breed, Sarah, but assuming typical industrial varieties Graham weighs about one and a half mature dairy goats."
"Who would win in a fight between Graham and a goat?"
"Based on Graham's lack of physical condition an infrequent exercise he would not be a match for a typical billy goat. That said, goats lack human intelligence and aggression. Further calculations are needed."
"Ask about travel insurance."
A new voice. Male. Clipped and urgent, it rushed through the speakers in the time it took a second's worth of static to fill the screen.
Her display zapped back to Graham's profile. She blinked, unsure it had really happened.
"I need another question, Sarah."
"Does he have travel insurance?"
"Are you interested in travel insurance, Sarah? I'd be happy to show you some more details, but it will mean canceling this week's LoveMatch programme. Is that okay?"
"Yes." her answer registered more enthusiasm than the unit had measured all week.
"You can leave the room now.
Her watch hadn't vibrated, and the message on her wrist used an unfamiliar green text on black background, but its meaning was clear. The sun rose over a tropical beach on Sarah's TV as she left the room, unchastened, to read a book.
"She watched an ad?"
A smaller meeting this time. Paul sat with the rest of the core LoveMatch team in a pastel coloured meeting room, his back to a saccharine motivational poster. His preferred spot.
"Yes." he answered. He counted four slow seconds and found no response. From experience this often meant more information was required.
"She asked about travel insurance. The agent saw an opportunity to make a sale. As we all know, sales trump everything here."
Paul had barely counted to one when Liz joined the discussion.
"And our ads don't prevent customers leaving the viewing area, so she didn't even have to watch the whole thing. How could she have known to do that? Paul, can you tell anything from the data?"
Paul paused, thinking back to the entries he'd deleted, the logs he'd forged, and the momentary thrill of finding a weakness in the fitTracker's security that allowed him to control its screen.
"I've been over the data thoroughly. There is nothing in the logs that explains her actions."
He spoke with the confidence of a man professing the truth.
Four seconds passed.
"If you like I can put together a presentation to take you through the data."
"It's an interesting area of course, Simon, but I don't think that'll be necessary. We all trust your judgment on this."
Paul had once wondered if his supervisor was being diplomatic in declining such offers. He'd quickly decided that the end result would be the same whatever the motivation.
"Mind you, Graham's the closest Sarah has come to a romantic response in weeks."
Paul looked at the intern who'd spoken and made a mental note to learn his name for the next meeting.
"Graham has experienced one romantic response since joining the programme."
"How many LoveMatch sessions has Graham attended?"
The agent paused for an eternity in machine time before answering. The delay would not register on a human scale.
"Has he seen my profile?"
Sarah's questions were quick, insistent, and delivered with anger.
"How many LoveMatch sessions has Graham completed?"
This time the delay bordered on noticeable.
"He must be very well briefed on your travel insurance policies." She wondered as she spoke if the agent could understand sarcasm.
"Graham has an exceptional level of familiarity with all InsuraTech products, Sarah. If you like I can arrange presentations covering any of our offerings."
"Does he work for you?"
"I'm sorry Sarah, for customer confidentiality reasons I can't answer that question. Would you like to ask another?"
"How many profiles did he see in these seven sessions?"
Another pause. "Only one", the agent admitted.
Sarah found herself sitting, wondering when she'd lost balance.
"What does he ask about me?"
The agent declined to answer.
"Okay, what caused the romantic response?" Sarah absentmindedly ran her fingers through her hair then straightened her skirt as she asked.
A sine wave representing Graham's breath rose to the top left quadrant of the screen. Orange flecks pointed to variations recorded when he first saw her profile. To its right, Sarah saw her own avatar for the first time. A red dot showed where Graham's eyes had lingered. It traced back and forth on a loop as Sarah tried to work out what had caused his sharp intake of breath.
"Graham's stats are obscured by a dangerously high caffeine habit. He has been cautioned several times about it. Compensating for this proves difficult but we can extrapolate.
His first reaction was one of concern. There was an anger too, with control. This was not directed at you. He seems to identify with you as someone with a shared struggle, but we cannot identify this point of commonality.
When presented with a graph of your mental state through your workday he showed signs of empathy when stress was high."
"How can I meet him?"
"I'm sorry Sarah, that functionality has not been implemented yet."
Paul did not use voice interaction. For rare moments when not at a keyboard his watch strap monitored the tendons of his left wrist and converted the movements to keystrokes. It was a laborious technique, error prone, and yet to Paul it was immeasurably preferable to talking. The rest of the LoveMatch team watched with practiced discretion as his hand twitched and jerked in the direction of the meeting room's monitor.
"Describe Sarah's reaction to Graham" appeared on the screen.
"Sarah has displayed considerable resistance to the LoveMatch programme", began the agent, its voice filling the speakers while the words appeared by Paul's. It continued:
"That she would request to view any profile is indicative of significant interest. Her fixation on goats and violence suggests unusual tastes that seem incompatible with Graham's more conventional preferences."
Paul smiled, pleased to see his social awareness ranked superior to a machine's. Most of the room laughed. His supervisor tapped a note in their tablet. Paul considered the odds: likely another feature request.
The monitor changed. No longer a transcript of the agent and Paul's conversation, it now showed a sine wave of Sarah's breathing and a graph of her hormone levels. To its right a section on voice analysis showed variations from the mean. On the bottom, he saw GPS tracking, sleep tracking and social media analysis. Other components were populating. He grimaced.
"By tracking Sarah's ovulation we have been able to"
"Stop!" Simon spoke, the word leaving his mouth while his fingers twitched the same message.
"Is something wrong?" the intern broke the silence. His name is Simon, Paul remembered. Other eyes turned to Paul's supervisor. They normally handled these situations.
"Sorry", Paul mouthed, barely audible. He counted to four.
"I don't think Sarah would want us having this much information on her. Or dissecting it in this way." he spoke with more conviction.
"But don't you process the private data of hundreds of thousands of customers?"
Simon was silenced by a glance from Paul's supervisor as they began to speak.
"I'm sure we all appreciate your commitment to customer privacy Paul, new as it may be. As you know it's one of InsuraTech's core values. And we take it seriously. It's the reason we keep the team this small. When our project is finished only the agent will have access to this kind of information. The decisions we're making now about Sarah's relationships will be made automatically in her best interests, and in the best interests of all our customers. Humans will only have access in exceptional circumstances.
We should also remember that Sarah volunteered for this. She signed our agreement detailing all the data we would gather on her. And how we'd use it. We're giving her a valuable discount at a time when other insurers would say she's too old to take out her first policy. She's free to quit any time she likes.
We're not big brother, Paul. We're not the government trying to clamp down on free speech or a cult trying to indoctrinate new members. We're trying to help her find the most optimal life partner. If we're successful we can help guide our customers into positive, nurturing, health improving relationships. The kind that will improve them physically and mentally while making them more productive members of society. What's good for them is good for InsuraTech. We're the good guys here. You can be proud of the work you do on this."
Paul sought the words that might persuade that this was wrong. He found none. "I understand", he mouthed at the lowest limit of audibility. His left hand jerked twice and the agent resumed its discussion of Sarah's ovulation cycle.
Paul watched his screen, watch, and phone flash as Sarah called the LoveMatch line. He rushed to silence alarms and vibrations, realizing he'd been overzealous in ensuring he was notified when she next contacted InsuraTech. Calls were set to answer after three rings. Immediate answers were possible, but the slight delay made the agents seem more human.
His fingers hovered, unwilling to commit to either choice before him. One click would let him answer the call. Another would let him control the agent.
He typed quickly. A third option, of sorts. Four additional rings before the agent would answer. Precious seconds in which to think. Could this manipulation, this prying into real people's most intimate moments lead to something good?
Could he have something good? Someone who would breathe a little differently when they saw his face, someone whose heart rate spiked when they thought of him - someone who'd give him meaning?
He typed quickly, matching the speed of speech.
"We're sorry, all available agents are on calls right now. We'll have someone call you back on this line within 30 minutes."
This will require social interaction, Paul thought, and social interaction always requires planning.
"Hello, InsuraTech callback?" The agent mimicked Sarah's accent. The goal of this subroutine was not to parrot the caller's voice; rather it was to create the impression they came from the same area, potentially knowing the same people. The voice was young, early 20's, male. Sarah wished for the calming voice she'd heard on the sales line.
"Is this the LoveMatch support line?" she asked.
"Hang on a sec" the agent spoke before adding the convincing sounds of paper shuffling.
"Oh, yeah, we do that. We cover a few different products here, that one's pretty new. Didn't recognise it for a sec there. Let me just get my notes on it..."
"Yeah, yeah. I remember this one now. Blue dolls and biometrics, right?"
He paused, Sarah felt forced to voice her agreement.
"Yeah, yeah. It's coming back to me. They make you sit through one of those sessions a week, right? I am sorry about that love. At least I was getting paid when I did those! Do you want me to see if I can get you out of the next one?"
"Thanks, but no. I actually had a question about one of the participants. Well, I was hoping to meet him. Well, if he wanted to."
The agent did a convincing impression of someone choking down a laugh.
"Sorry love. Tea went down the wrong way. Eh, that's going to be difficult. You read the legal agreement, right?"
"Yes", she lied. Graham had better be worth this.
"No offence love but if you're calling me asking to meet one of the blue boys you must have been skimming it. Says here you had a romantic response to a Graham, right?"
"Sorry love, didn't catch that."
"Yes." she longed for the ground to swallow her as she discussed her crush with what sounded more and more like a teenager.
"Yeah, well, like it says in the contract, it's just test data. The system's not fully live yet. All those stats are made up. Graham's a database dump.
If you ask me the system's not great. My sister's a bit older, like you, but she's met some decent guys on Tindr. Well, turns out one of them was married, but he got me a great discount on my ph-"
Sarah hung up. Moments later her fitTracker gurgled its final complaints as she flushed it down the toilet.
"Right, I had a speech prepared, but instead I just want to start by giving you lot a round of applause."
Tom stood, dropping the last of a pastry into Liz's coffee cup, and clapped vigorously.
"Come on everyone, join in!"
He nodded to the other members of the HealthyHabits team who stood in obligation and clapped, the remnants of the LoveMatch team wincing, waiting for their initiation to end.
"I've seen some clusterfucks in my time but I have never seen a project so bad that people will chuck their health insurance to get away from it. Literally, people looked at a slow, painful death without access to a hospital and thought they'd risk it if it got them out of sitting through twenty minutes of your dating show.
You think Cilla Black ever had this problem? No, she did not. She knew how to make quality entertainment. She knocked out an hour a week, no script, no computers, no gadgets, and long before you lot were born. Look her up. You might learn something.
Do you know we even had to pay off the pilot users? That's right, you did your best, and your best was so godawful we actually took out the cheque book and gave some nobodies tends of thousands just to never tell anyone about it. Your attempts at online dating were so bad, Legal told us there was a good chance we'd get sued. Don't you feel proud right now?
And where's Captain Social Awkward? Paul something or other. Don't bother telling me his name, I don't have long-term need of that information."
"Damn. I was really looking forward to firing someone."
"You were his supervisor, weren't you? You supervised precisely one person. I always thought that was weird. And you're the one who filed the feature request to make obnoxious pricks for the phone lines. The ones that legal had heart attacks over. Talk me through why we still need you. But let me get comfortable first. I think I'm going to enjoy this."
Paul saw Sarah carrying her takeaway coffee. He'd gambled that she'd visit the reservoir again. He'd spent hours sitting on the edge of her favourite bench, fighting his urge to fade into the ivy. Could a connection start with an apology? Could something grow from that? He found consolation in knowing that whatever happened next would at least be real.
"Hello", he said, reminding himself that eye contact was important.