The Algorithmic Future of Love
Sam Yagan is co-founder and CEO of OkCupid.com, the fastest-growing free online dating service. Yagan was previously co-founder and CEO of TheSpark.com, maker of SparkNotes, and president of MetaMachine, which developed P2P file-sharing application eDonkey. He has also been vice president and general manager at Delias, and vice-president and publisher at Barnes & Noble.
Question: What’s new about OKCupid?
Sam Yagan: I think of OkCupid as an online bar; a place where singles can go, have fun with each other and in the process hopefully meet new people, some of whom might turn into a romantic relationship.
Imagine if you had a video camera in every bar in the country and you could watch and log every transaction, every interaction that took place. You could watch what each person was wearing; you could watch what pick-up line they used. You could watch the person of this race and age approach the person of this race and age. And was that a successful interaction? Imagine how amazing that data set would be and how much fun you could have learning about people, dating, society.
We’ve got that essentially on our online bar. We can watch every time someone looks at a profile. Do they choose to send that person a message? We can look at every message that’s sent and we can determine, was that message replied to or not. And we can run a bunch of regressions and a bunch of analyses to determine what were the driving factors of that decision being made to send a message or that decision being made not to reply to a message.
So we have this data. And what’s really interesting about the data is that it is not survey data. It’s not an experiment; it’s not in a laboratory. If you remember back to the 2008 elections, there was this thing called “The Bradley Effect.” And nobody knew if the surveys were able to actually quantify the potential impact of race. If you call someone up and say, are you racist? They say, no. And will race impact your vote? They’re going to say, no. But when you get into that ballot box, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
And so what we’ve got is we’re actually observing these behaviors and race is the easiest thing to talk about because it’s so salient. But even beyond that, you can look at hair color, you can look at height. You can look at pickup lines.
I think the data-based approach actually appeals much more broadly than a psychology-based approach which might just be dismissed by people. Even if you’re not a math person, you’re unlikely to dismiss something that was brought to you by a scientific process.
Question: What has the reaction been to OKCupid’s approach?
Sam Yagan: We have published some things that have made other dating executives worry about us and wonder why we’re "hurting the industry." For example, we published the average response rate on OKCupid is about 33%. So about one out of every three messages you send get responded to. And we got several inquiries from our competitors saying why would you say that? Why would you tell people that most messages they send don't get replied to?
Our entire brand is about transparency. We want that data out there because you know what? If you are only getting one in three messages replied to, you’re normal. You’re right there in the middle of everything with everyone else. So rather than wondering to yourself, “Wow, am I the only person that’s not getting most of my message responded to?” Quite the opposite. You are, again, in the norm.
So we really believe that transparency is the best approach. We think we have the best product. We think we have the best matching algorithm, we think we have the best members. So why wouldn’t we want to just shine the light onto just how our processes work, what the real data are, and let people come to their own conclusions.
Question: How is OKCupid different from other dating sites?
The biggest difference between a psychology-based approach to matching and a data-based approach to matching—in particular in the way that we do it as opposed to somebody like eHarmony—is, you know, eHarmony employs a centralized model. They have a specific way to match people up. A specific belief on what drives a successful relationship. They may be right, they may be wrong, and that’s the flaw in their model... is that they may be wrong.
Our system is decentralized. We don’t have any preconceived notion of what makes a good match. We don’t have any preconceived notion about whether like wants like, whether opposites attract. We don’t have any preconceived notion that God is more important than pets. What we believe, fundamentally, is that people are single and people therefore turn to online dating, not because they don’t know what they’re looking for, but because they don’t meet enough people in their day-to-day life.
Ask yourself, how many single people of the appropriate gender, the appropriate orientation and the appropriate age do you meet in a given week? If you’re like most people, you have routines. You go to the same job, you go to the same gym, you hang out with the same friends and you don’t meet that many new people. You turn to online dating, not because you say, “Gosh, I have no idea what I’m looking for.” You turn to online dating because you want to meet more people. And in that way, I think the decentralized model of you come and tell us what you’re looking for, we’ll use data, we’ll use algorithms to sort through the millions of profiles and find the best people for you. We think that’s much more powerful and, in particular, not exposed to that risk of our algorithm being wrong. It’s possible the eHarmony algorithm is perfect and right, but it’s also possible that it’s right for some people and wrong for other people. And if you fall into one of those... if you’re one of those people for whom their algorithm is wrong, then their product can’t service you by definition. And our model doesn’t have that fault. We don’t believe that X is looking for Y or that A and B are matches for each other. We simply give you the platform to express your preferences.
We have this term in the office called “three ways,” which isn’t probably what you’re thinking about. A three way in OkCupid’s parlance is a message, a reply and a reply back. We believe that if you’re in a "three way," that is, you are having a conversation with someone that is a metric of success. We’ve done a good job of matching you up. So we do feedback whether or not a message led to a "three way" into our matching algorithms.
There is a risk of people gaming the system. And that’s a question we get a lot because these are expressed preferences rather than observed behaviors. There is a chance for someone to answer questions in a particular way that they might think is more attractive to someone that they’re trying to impress. We have a few different ways of countering that. The most powerful of which is, our system inherently penalizes inconsistency. What do I mean by that? There might be 10 questions, imagine that we have learned, that are highly correlated. Right? We know that people who tend to answer question A, a certain way also answer question B a certain way and answer question C a certain way.
So if you go through, you’re trying to game the system and you don’t actually have these preferences, you’re just trying to guess what answers are going to be the most attractive to a given person, you’re unlikely to know and to expose all those same correlations that we’ve seen in the data.
Sort of a more visceral way of thinking about that is: if you try to game the system, you’re unlikely to... you’re going to have a set of preferences that is likely to piss everyone off in some way or another. Right? Because you’re not a sort of coordinated set of answers that’s likely to make one person very happy and one person very unhappy, you’re likely just to make every person relatively unhappy because you haven’t answered the questions in a consistent way that people are looking for.
And so the system inherently penalizes someone who tries to game it. It inherently penalizes inconsistency. Now you could sort of put yourself in some sort of Zen mode where you just say, "I am going to become this person. I’m going to become a 45-year old devout Catholic who is looking for marriage." And you could sort of live out this whole lifestyle and answer every question exactly that way, and sure, in that case you’ll game the system. But for most cases, you’re going to have missteps along the way and the system is going to penalize you.
A lot of times what people think they want and what people actually want turn out to be different. So you may say that I want someone in this age range, or you may be searching for someone of a certain ethnicity, of a certain race, but it may turn out that you may be sending messages to people outside of that range, or outside of those constraints. And so we will sometimes loosen constraints for you if we know that you’re actually more receptive to people outside of those boundaries.
Recorded on November 4, 2010
Interviewed by Teddy Sherrill
Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler
OkCupid records and publishes data on the interactions, profiles, and preferences of its members. This information has plenty of implications for the social-scientific quest to understand human behavior.
Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.
- During the 1930s, thousands of Americans sympathized with the Nazis, holding huge rallies.
- The rallies were organized by the American German Bund, which wanted to spread Nazi ideology.
- Nazi supporters also organized summer camps for kids to teach them their values.
A Bund parade in New York, October 30, 1939.
Credit: Library of Congress
1930s AMERICAN FASCIST BUND CAMP HOME MOVIE BERGWALD NEW JERSEY<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="69d54b175b0d317cf9bfd688e4fa04f3"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gOPeDaDcw3w?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
The Three Gods Problem<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyOGZk7WbIk" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> One of the more popular wordings of the problem, which MIT logic professor George Boolos <a href="https://www.readersdigest.ca/culture/hardest-logic-puzzle-ever/" target="_blank">said</a> was the hardest ever, is:<br> <br> "Three gods A, B, and C are called, in no particular order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for <em>yes</em> and <em>no</em> are <em>da</em> and <em>ja</em>, in some order. You do not know which word means which."<br> <br> Boolos adds that you are allowed to ask a particular god more than one question and that Random switches between answering as if they are a truth-teller or a liar, not merely between answering "da" and "ja." <br> <br> Give yourself a minute to ponder this; we'll look at a few answers below. Ready? Okay. <strong><br> <br></strong>George Boolos' <a href="https://www.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588A37/file/31B21D0580E8B125852577CA0060ABC9/$FILE/harvardreview_1996_0006_0001_0060_0063.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">solution</a> focuses on finding either True or False through complex questions. </p><p> In logic, there is a commonly used function often written as "iff," which means "if, and only if." It would be used to say something like "The sky is blue if and only if Des Moines is in Iowa." It is a powerful tool, as it gives a true statement only when both of its components are true or both are false. If one is true and the other is false, you have a false statement. </p><p> So, if you make a statement such as "the moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Rome is in Russia," then you have made a true statement, as both parts of it are false. The statement "The moon has no air if, and only if, Rome is in Italy," is also true, as both parts of it are true. However, "The moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Albany is the capitol of New York," is false, because one of the parts of that statement is true, and the other part is not (The fact that these items don't rely on each other is immaterial for now).</p><p> In this puzzle, iff can be used here to control for the unknown value of "da" and "ja." As the answers we get can be compared with what we know they would be if the parts of our question are all true, all false, or if they differ. </p><p> Boolos would have us begin by asking god A, "Does "da" mean yes if and only if you are True if and only if B is Random?" No matter what A says, the answer you get is extremely useful. As he explains: <br> </p><p> "If A is True or False and you get the answer da, then as we have seen, B is Random, and therefore C is either True or False; but if A is True or False and you get the answer ja, then B is not Random, therefore B is either True or False… if A is Random and you get the answer da, C is not Random (neither is B, but that's irrelevant), and therefore C is either True or False; and if A is Random...and you get the answer ja, B is not random (neither is C, irrelevantly), and therefore B is either True or False."<br> <br> No matter which god A is, an answer of "da" assures that C isn't Random, and a response of "ja" means the same for B. </p><p> From here, it is a simple matter of asking whichever one you know isn't Random questions to determine if they are telling the truth, and then one on who the last god is. Boolos suggests starting with "Does da mean yes if, and only if, Rome is in Italy?" Since one part of this is accurate, we know that True will say "da," and False will say "ja," if faced with this question. </p><p> After that, you can ask the same god something like, "Does da mean yes if, and only if, A is Random?" and know exactly who is who by how they answer and the process of elimination. </p><p> If you're confused about how this works, try going over it again slowly. Remember that the essential parts are knowing what the answer will be if two positives or two negatives always come out as a positive and that two of the gods can be relied on to act consistently. </p><p> Smullyan wrote several books with other logic puzzles in them. If you liked this one and would like to learn more about the philosophical issues they investigate, or perhaps if you'd like to try a few that are a little easier to solve, you should consider reading them. A few of his puzzles can be found with explanations in this <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interactive</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.