How AI can help us all lead happier lives

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AI is being brought to bear on a wide range of modern challenges, from work to medicine, the environment and transport. But Dr Kazuo Yano, Fellow at Hitachi Ltd., believes it can also help improve our happiness.

That doesn’t require us to reduce humans to robots, or our emotions to programmable impulses. Instead, the aim of Dr Yano’s work is to use AI to analyse data that reflects our happiness, in order to uncover simple, small changes in our lives that might improve our moods and emotional state.

“We are quite confident this planet can be made happier scientifically by using this data and technology,” Dr Yano says. “Still, much of the research is based on questionnaires and surveys. We’re unique because we use more advanced technology, as well as questionnaires. By using smartphones, deployed to more than a billion people, I think there’s potential to make this planet a better, happier place.”

And he’s been developing the idea on himself. Since 2006, Dr Yano has worn a fitness-style monitor on his wrist, but rather than count steps, it helps track his happiness. “We started measuring human behaviour about 15 years ago,” he explains.

“And finally, about four years ago, we developed a technology to quantify the happiness of people, using a sensor embedded in our smartphone – the accelerometer.” And this tracking can now be accomplished using an app for iPhone or Android: “Instead of deploying special hardware to users, we just let them download the software,” he says.

Of course, establishing someone’s mood isn’t as simple as measuring how much that person moves: the information collected with the sensor needs to be interpreted. To help, Dr Yano and his team collated data on ten million days from people at various participating organisations, be they companies, schools or hospitals. That dataset includes motion-sensor data gathered at the millisecond level including face-to-face meeting signals captured using infrared sensors, as well as questionnaires filled out by participants. “If you’re unhappy, you can’t focus and you don’t eat and sleep well,” he says. “Those are quite universal and consistent, it doesn’t depend on your culture.”

And how happy someone reports themselves to be on the questionnaire has a high correlation to their movement patterns, which are analysed using AI. “The pattern that has a high correlation is related to active motion – from when they start moving to stopping, and when they stop moving to starting again,” he explains. “Happy people are diversified and flexible depending on the situation. Unhappy people lose that flexibility. And that’s a very good signal for quantifying the happiness of an individual or a group of people.”

He adds that it’s not about individual happiness levels, but about our behaviour around other people, and the impact that has on the rest of the group. “On an individual level, we can quantify how much you make others happy and the group’s level of happiness,” he says. “Interestingly, our data clearly shows the sum of the happiness of people is very accurately proportional to the sum of the behaviours of making others happy. Happiness cannot be achieved by individuals – it’s driven by the interaction with others and good relationships with others.”

The data was analysed using AI to build a score, which was found to have a high correlation with specific types of physical motion. That gives the researchers the ability to measure someone’s happiness or mental state at any given moment, allowing them to see what improves mood and what doesn’t. “We can analyse this data to provide interventions to help people be happier,” he says.

And that’s where the app comes in. It uses the accelerometer inside the smartphone to track motion as well as monitoring happiness every ten minutes. Alongside the information gathering, it also has what Dr Yano refers to as a group happiness competition — that may sound dystopian, but the aim is simply to give people the tools to work well together. “It ranks how well you make other people, and helps people to improve,” he says.

“The app provides you with a reminder in the morning, with an activity you can do to make other people happy. There are thousands in the app, so you can pick one you like, or you can create your own. Every day, the user is creating their idea of making others happy.” The suggestion from the app could be meeting a new person, talking to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, or leaving work on schedule so you can spend more time with family or friends. It’s a small change, and the effort to choose one in the app and share it with followers takes less than a minute, Dr Yano says. “That tiny change has a tremendous impact on their life,” he adds.

Part of the impact of the app is refocusing our attention on the positive. “We are creatures of attention,” says Dr Yano. “Even if 99 per cent of our day is positive, if you experience one negative thing and put your attention on that, you’ll have a negative day.” That’s exacerbated by social media, which can tend towards the negative. This app, he says, can be seen as a counter to those effects, making use of social features, such as sharing via a smartphone, positive.

Over the last year, more than 4,000 people have trialled the app via their work or other organisations, tracking progress via a happiness index called psychological capital, an idea originated by management science thought leader Fred Luthans, now a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, which suggests improving those scores can lead to leaps in profit for participant companies. But it’s not only about boosting revenue – the benefits extend well beyond the workplace, Dr Yano says. “Happiness can’t be categorised as individual or work – it’s a combined thing,” he adds.

Because of that, and wary of such a powerful tool being misused, the only person who can see a happiness score is the individual user – not their boss or HR department. “Aggregated data is shown and shared, but there could be a risk of wrong usage for individual data,” he notes.

Beyond the office, Dr Yano believes the app could be useful for older people to address loneliness and unhappiness. “Long life until we’re 100 years old with unhealthy conditions or unhappiness is not good – but a happy 100 years of life is something we need,” says Dr Yano. “I hope this technology can be applied to many different issues.” It’s one way AI could, in the right hands, help make us happier and healthier.

Innovation for the future

Modern life is saturated with data and technologies are emerging nearly every day – but how can we use these innovations to make a real difference to the world?

Hitachi believes that social innovation should underpin everything it does, so it can find ways to tackle the biggest issues we face today.

Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Hitachi Social Innovation is Powering Good and helping drive change across the globe.

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