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Future Tense: They Just Click

Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.

When glasses track glances, will eyes still meet across a crowded room?
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mannequin in window

"People don’t read end-user license agreements," said Mallory, unhappily. "They just click."

"I know." I fired up the demo for its first walk-through. "Shrink-wrap’s watertight."

The screen lit up with the view from Subject A’s glasses: a typical English Saturday suburban High Street.

"See?," I said. "Anonymized. Ethical."

I knew Subject A was male. I didn’t know his name, age, location, or appearance. The system did.

On the screen the gaze-tracker flicked about like a jittery cursor. Every millisecond moment when something snagged the gaze was logged, too fast to read except when he deliberately looked. Right now: running shoes in a sports-shop window.

The view swung as he turned and walked on. He passed a department-store display of the latest summer dresses without a glance. The next shop was stationery. Even in real time, you could see his gaze linger on a nifty gift-pen cluster.

"So far, so shopping-glass," said Mallory, sounding skeptical rather than dubious.

"Roll back," I told the system. "Now forward, slow." Again the man walked past the department-store window. Slowed down, the gaze-tracker showed his eye alight on a hem here, the hip-tilt on a mannequin there, a neckline farther along.

Mallory watched, horrified.

"This is creepy," said Mallory.

I jumped the view forward to where the guy was now.

"No," I said. "It’s how I first spotted this pattern, in the shopping-glass logs. Men notice women’s clothes, just not the way women do. Same with faces and bodies; look…"

Subject A had passed the block of shops and was paying more attention to the people in the busy street. Again I rolled back and forwarded slowly, this time filtering out glances at inanimate stuff—sidewalk, cars, street furniture—leaving the looks at people.

Subject A was straight. He registered other men with a subliminal check that they weren’t a threat. Women he noticed quite differently: He didn’t stare or lech, but he definitely checked them over. Now and again he’d give a woman a second, conscious glance. What caught his eye could be the obvious—the sway of a hip, say—but far more often it wasn’t. Rather, an ear, a drift of hair, a snazzy blouse, eyes, a cuff that set off a wrist…

"This guy is weird," Mallory said.

"He’s typical," I said. "I’ve seen this scores of times. Men don’t even notice what they notice about women. It’s more than they’ll say it is, that’s for sure." I brushed my palms together. "Now for Subject B."

I clicked a search for a woman within a 500-meter radius whose profile matched A’s data-mined tastes and—crucially—whose own taste in men nominally matched A. Several possibles popped up, with the street heaving with shoppers, mostly young. Like A, all had clicked on the agreement to be included in experiments with the glasses, almost certainly unaware that that was what they were doing.

I picked the nearest: about 100 meters from A, walking toward him. I flashed to A’s and B’s glasses an ad for cool drinks, flagging-up the salience of a Caffè Nero.

Mallory watched, horrified.

"This is sick," he said. "I see what you’ve done; you’ve mated the shopping algorithm with this dating algorithm…"

"’Mated’ is right!," I muttered. "C’mon c’mon, guys, iced coffee…"

A minute or so apart, B and A entered the same café. The screen followed A in.

"This is just so unethical," Mallory wittered on. "There’ll be privacy issues, it’ll get hacked and become a stalker’s paradise, it’ll freak people out, especially women, you wait and see, and what if people find out things about themselves, suppose they’re gay and don’t know it, or don’t want to know, and…"

"We can stick a counseling module on the back," I said, abstractedly, following Subject A’s idle gaze as he queued. "Details, details… Don’t you see? This is going to shape human evolution! Just think, people’s real unconscious attractions are often genetically the most suitable for healthy offspring, but they get overridden by all sorts of extraneous…"

Ah, yes. Subject B. There she was, at the till, paying. Subject A had noticed her, all right. My next step would be a discreet message on their glasses: "A man/woman who might like you and who you might like is nearby. Would you like to meet?" The usual Yes/No blink option. The Yes had to be mutual—ethics, see?

My finger hovered over Send.

"Excuse me," said a voice, above the clatter of cutlery.

A turned. The young woman beside him in the queue looked quite unlike subject B, and she didn’t have glasses.


"It’s your turn." Irritated…

"Oh, sorry." I heard his smile. He called for a tall iced coffee, just as I’d expected. Then he looked back at the woman.

"And for you…?"

"Oh, I’ll…" She looked flustered, then smiled. "A skim mocha, thanks."

Together, chatting, they headed for a table.

"Oh bugger."

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