Need Help Deciphering That Vague Text Message? AI Wants To Help

May 26, 2019

Texting is the go-to way to communicate these days. It keeps us connected, but it also has some gray areas. What does that upside down smiley face mean? Why don't people use periods at the ends of their sentences anymore?

A number of tech companies are using artificial intelligence to help improve texting relationships. Mei, is one of those companies. It aims to "deliver real-time personalized analysis and advice based on your text conversations."

Journalist Rainesford Stauffer has written about this issue for The New York Times. In an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, she says these apps are meant to analyze our messages and provide feedback on our interactions with others. She says the feedback is often what people are searching for as they try to figure out the confusion that sometimes springs up when they're texting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

How these apps are designed to help with texting

I think the idea behind an app like Mei, is based on text messages and call logs that come in through your phone, it is capable of detecting and understanding everything from personality and mood to how we interact and when we interact with our contacts. As it builds this personality profile, it gives you feedback on your text.

The examples of that were really interesting. It was everything from "your mom loves you very much" to "you seem like more of an introvert than an extrovert" or detecting abnormal behavior if you're not texting like your usual self.

What companies are doing to address privacy concerns

That was one of things that I really got to speak with the founder about and he did reassure me that though they collect communication with every contact to build an accurate profile of the user, the only personally identifiable information they have is your phone number. They don't have your name. They couldn't pick you out of a crowd, but the person on the other end, who you're corresponding with, is not aware that a personality profile is being built on them or that their information is being analyzed in this way.

I think the argument to that is you could turnaround and show a friend that you're sitting next to someone's text and say "Hey, what do you think this means? Do you think this is a little odd?" But the idea of information being harvested with the intention of analyzing mood and personality adds a little bit to that gray area of who has access to what and what we're reading into.

On whether people truly need help texting

I think that now more than ever our communications are loaded in the sense that it's possible to read into a lot. I think that we have a desire for answers about what the person on the other end of the line is thinking and I think apps like Mei work to fill that void. I think the most interesting element of this is the emphasis on trying to make communication and technology more human through increased technology. I think we're really yearning for human to human understanding and trying to figure out how to relate to each other through all of these different forms of communication.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Lynn Kim produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Texting is the go-to way to communicate these days. It keeps us connected, but it also has some gray areas. What does that upside-down smiley face mean? Why don't people use periods at the ends of their sentences anymore? A number of tech companies are using artificial intelligence, or AI, to help improve texting relationships.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mei can understand you and the people you chat with just based on texts that are already on your phone. Finally, an app that uses AI to empower you.

DAVIS: Rainesford Stauffer is a journalist who has written on this issue for The New York Times. She joins us now. Good morning.

RAINESFORD STAUFFER: Hi, there. Thanks so much for having me on.

DAVIS: So how are apps like Mei designed to help with texting?

STAUFFER: I think the idea behind an app like Mei is that based on text messages and call logs that come in through your phone, it is capable of detecting and understanding everything from personality and mood to how we interact and when we interact with our contacts. As it builds this personality profile, it gives you feedback on your texts. And the examples of that were really interesting. It was everything from, your mom loves you very much to, you seem like more of an introvert than an extrovert or detecting abnormal behavior if you're not texting like your usual self.

DAVIS: One thing I thought of is I thought about downloading Mei onto my phone. But then I also feel a little freaked out by the privacy component here. I mean, it really does have access to all of your past text messaging, all of your contacts. It seems like that might make some users a little squeamish about using this kind of technology, even if they like the idea of it.

STAUFFER: Absolutely. That was one of the things that I really got to speak to the founder about. And he did reassure me that, though they collect communication with every contact to build an accurate profile of the user, the only personally identifiable information they have is your telephone number. So they don't have your name. They couldn't pick you out of a crowd. But the person on the other end who you're corresponding with is not aware that a personality profile is being built on them or that their information is being analyzed in this way.

I think the argument to that is, you know, you could turn around and show a friend that you're sitting next to someone's text and say, hey, what do you think this means? Do you think this is a little odd? But the idea of information being harvested with the intention of analyzing mood and personality adds a little bit to that gray area of who has access to what and what we're reading into.

DAVIS: Why do people need help texting? Is it really that hard?

STAUFFER: I think that now more than ever, our communications are loaded in the sense that it's possible to read into a lot. As you said, does putting a period at the end of a sentence mean anything? Is someone's tone different? I think that we have a desire for answers about what the person on the other end of the line is thinking. And I think apps like Mei work to fill that void.

I think the most interesting element of this is the emphasis on trying to make communication and technology more human through increased technology. I think that we're really yearning for human-to-human understanding and trying to figure out how to relate to each other through all of these different forms of communication.

DAVIS: Journalist Rainesford Stauffer, thank you.

STAUFFER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.