Upgrading Love


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Upgrading Love

Tech has its hands in everything—including your love life.
February 27, 2015, 4:05pm

"What is love?" asked the singer Haddaway in his one-hit wonder all the way back in that innocent year of 1993. People were asking that question long before him, of course, and it will likely persist as long as humans are around and some future totalitarian government hasn't restricted sex a la 1984. Is romantic love just an idea, a series of biochemical reactions, or something more transcendent and intangible?

We may never have a satisfactory answer, but one thing is certain: In just the past few years, new technologies have radically upended our collective notions of love, both in terms of how we practice it, and how we understand it, as a new video from GE's Invention Factory reveals.


The most apparent technological shift in how we experience love has come in the form of data-centric dating apps. For a while in the early 2000s, it seemed like desktop dating networks were the future. Match, OkCupid, Gay Romeo, Plenty Of Fish, eHarmony, and other similar websites arose to cater to singles looking for a more targeted way to sort through potential mates than the traditional means of going to bars and relying on IRL recommendations from friends.

These early websites asked their users lots of questions about who they were and what they wanted in terms of partners, then used matching algorithms to pair people together. Taking this idea a step further, niche websites such as JDate and Christian Mingle cropped up promising romance between people of specific religious, sexual and cultural identities.

These websites saw lots of initial success, at least in terms of sheer number of users. But many romantic hopefuls who flocked to them also found sorting through matches and setting up their profiles to be an exhausting and ultimately fruitless experience. Call it an overabundance of information.

Enter Tinder. The smartphone hookup app launched just a few short years ago, in fall 2012, but it's already seen such an incredible rise in popularity, it's now tough to imagine the dating landscape without it. Tinder took the idea of online matchmaking and radically simplified it. Your profile is extremely quick to set up, and choosing between potential matches in your area is as simple as looking at a few photos and swiping right if interested and left if not. Numerous similar dating apps have launched in Tinder's wake, and even some of the old legacy matchmaking networks have redesigned their own apps to be more like it.


Of course, these type of low-friction, mate-sorting technologies aren't perfect. They've been criticized by some for being superficial and frivolous, and their popularity has also seen a rise in spammy sex bots looking to trick lonely singles into giving over their information and/or visiting adult websites.

Behind the scenes, technology has also gradually changed how researchers understand love and sex. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, which use directed magnetic field to align and visualize individual molecules inside the body, have given us a window into exactly which regions of the brain are responsible for providing the feelings we associate with love. By measuring the flow of blood through the brain, researchers have pinpointed that romantic love is distinct from sexual attraction, and is tied to several specific regions, including the Caudate Nucleus in the center-front portion of the brain, and the Ventral Tegmental Area, which helps govern the brain's reward system and is also associated with drug addiction.

Oxytocin, a naturally occurring human hormone, has lately been nicknamed the "love hormone" by journalists after studies revealed its role in forming emotional attachment after orgasm and childbirth. Further studies indicate the role that drugs and other substances play on our brain's impact on our emotions, sometimes even interfering with our ability to love. Still, despite these and many other advances, researchers say that we are still a long way from understanding what truly makes us love another person.