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A Rocket Scientist's Love Algorithm
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IN 2014, RASHIED Amini was just another engineer in love. He had a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in LA and a girlfriend he believed was the one. “I was in a long-term relationship with someone I was very much in love with, and I was getting ready to commit, considered proposing,” he says.
Unfortunately, his girlfriend had not come to the same conclusion. The numbers did not add up the same way for her. “So we had this sort of long, drawn-out breakup where she didn’t know if she wanted to be with me,” Amini says. “She didn't know how to make that decision.” She threw out a suggestion: How about a cost-benefit analysis of our relationship.
She might well have meant it as a joke—maybe even a test—but Amini couldn’t stop himself. “The first thing I did was that sort of nervous laughter of, ‘You can't be serious. This is silly,’” he says. “And then the next thing that happens is, oh, that light bulb goes off and, ‘You know what? I bet I could build this.’ That’s the engineer me.” He opened up Excel and started computing a crude utility value of his relationship. Thus Nanaya, a love prediction algorithm, was born. It was conjured in the hopes that love would listen to numbers.
AMINI STARTED OFF with the basics, working part time on what would become a full-fledged dating-app startup. His work as a rocket scientist gave him a framework. “I had worked on designing moon or Mars bases and trying to understand how much is it going to cost. There’s a lot of uncertainty. So what you need to be able to address is that uncertainty,” he says.
Romance, he figured, simply presented a different set of uncertainties. “You leave the home, and as soon as you leave the home there is this vast envelope of all the different types of people you can meet,” he says. “There's going to be a certain set of people you meet within that larger envelope of possibility. So there's going to have to be some tricks involved with trying to constrain that uncertainty to what's actually realistic to the life of any individual.”
Amini engineered Nanaya to provide clients with a report on their love chances, quantifying the multiple uncertainties of love. It offers free personality and prediction tests, but the much more elaborate premium services costs a one-time charge of $9. (If you’re going to do this, pay the money.) It launched in 2016 and has hundreds of thousands of users, which gives it a unique database of information about people’s love choices, though Amini hasn’t left his job at the Jet Propulsion Lab.
There are many dating apps with more users, of course. But Nanaya has depth. Its questionnaire, particularly in the premium version, is truly extensive, with questions about your larger community, professional and social associations, behaviors, and preferences. Sometimes these questions seem strange or irrelevant: Do you have a pet reptile? How many subway stops do you take to get to work?
The questionnaire is the key to Nanaya, both to its effectiveness and to the insights into relationships it can provide. “Because you know the communities, you can try to assess the probability of finding someone you’re compatible with in those communities,” Amini says. “Once you have that probability, you plop it into a different equation, and you can figure out what are the odds and time of finding someone compatible given all of your social interactions for all of the communities you're a part of.” The value is probabilistic, expressed as the time in which it is most likely for you to find love—a useful number to know about yourself, if somewhat frightening to face.
Knowing that number—the utility value of your relationships—may never be more valuable than it is right now. The app is an aid to finding love, but it is equally an aid to evaluating a relationship you happen to be in. Your use-value in a relationship applies both at times when you’re single and at times when you’re with someone. Covid-19 is a relationship catalyst; it breaks couples, and it makes couples. In Wuhan, and in Lombardy, the divorce rate has been spiking the moment the disease ebbs. Some married couples, forced into intimacy without relief, have discovered that they don’t particularly like one other. And single people, after a long period without touch and the solitary contemplation of mortality, are flocking to relationships, however they can.
Online dating is way up, with more than half of users saying they have been on their dating apps more during lockdown than before. At the same time as Covid-19 puts everybody’s relationship under extreme pressure, it is accelerating, dramatically, the digital basis of all relationships. Just as local businesses had to rush onto delivery platforms, and offices had to figure out Zoom meeting schedules, so the hard realities of the disease have pushed love in the direction it was already going: fully online.
Online dating is both incredibly popular and incredibly unpopular. Before Covid, nearly a quarter of people in the United States used online dating services, nearly a third of young people. But according to SurveyMonkey, 56 percent of adults—slightly higher among women, slightly lower among men—view dating sites somewhat or very negatively. And that’s because they suck and they don’t work. The online dating space, as dominant as it is becoming, remains mathematically crude. Dating is and always was and probably always will be a game about stupid numbers: height and weight and money.
The proprietary algorithms that underlie most dating sites are, naturally enough, aimed at matchmaking. They determine, with more or less accuracy, how compatible you are with someone else and then put you in contact with them. But as anyone who has been on dozens of first dates has learned, first-date compatibility is not necessarily the right question. It’s the utility of those encounters, how close they get you to what you’re looking for. Here are some better questions to ask than "how do I meet roughly compatible partners?": How do you know if you’re in the right relationship? If you’re not in the right relationship, how do you find one?
What increases or decreases your chances at finding love? The answers aren’t obvious or intuitive, Amini says. “The average time people stay single changes based on all these different aspects of identity and lifestyle,” he says. “So I ask a question to my users: How often do you take public transit? I find out that people who take public transit regularly find relationships about four months faster than people who don't take public transit.”
Four months is a significant increase in relationship use-value. But that doesn’t mean you should move to New York if you’re looking for love, because the number of available partners and the sheer quantity of choice increases the length of time it takes to find “the one.” Can you guess the profession in which people stay single for the least amount of time? I thought medicine. I was wrong. It’s agriculture. Big cities can lead to “decision paralysis.” Small towns can lead to “rapid selection.” You don’t need a mathematical model when there are three guys in town to pick from.
Nanaya gives more solid bases to old saws and bits of dating folk wisdom. “One of the other interesting results that we have is that people who are insecure and trying to search for a relationship and find the one, it’s gonna take them longer to find someone than someone who isn’t even looking for anything, but they’re confident in who they are,” Amini says. “That is absolutely true from our data. So that’s not our model. That’s not our algorithm. That is the real data we have from tens of thousands of people.” The raw data, it turns out, confirms a bit of conventional wisdom: Love really does come when you’re not looking for it.
How do you know when you’ve found someone good enough? Mathematically, the question of when to settle is more complex than how to find a partner. “So you are someone who’s in a relationship. You have two choices: Stay in the relationship or don’t stay in the relationship. Now, if you're not with that person, you actually have two utilities: You have the utility of being single, plus the utility of any possible relationship that you are likely to end up in.”
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