Innovation: Can technology persuade us to save energy?
By Tom Simonite If technology is to save us from climate change, it has some tough challenges to master: taming wave, wind and sun, cheaply scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air or mastering fusion. But a growing number of people think another should be added to the list: mastering human nature. This “persuasive technology” would sway people to adopt less polluting behaviour and may come in the form of new gadgets and online services or new features for existing technology. Energy savings from behavioural change can be dismissed as advanced marketing techniques and may seem trivial compared with the esoteric materials science that is needed to harvest solar energy more efficiently. But there is much to be gained. Last week New Scientist reported that US emissions could be cut by more than 7 per cent if people changed their ways at home. Separate studies in US, Dutch and British homes have reported that 26 to 36 per cent of domestic energy use is “behavioural” – determined by the way we use machines, not the efficiency of the hardware itself. This means that “machines designed to change humans”, as the persuasive technology group of Stanford University, California, calls them, could save us huge amounts of energy and money. Many projects are trying to make that happen, with two main motivations. One is to understand which facets of human nature can be manipulated to change behaviour. The other is to develop technical strategies to do so. A simple technique underlying many projects is to provide read-outs of people’s energy use, in situations like the home where it has historically been hidden. It is well known that giving drivers feedback on fuel efficiency, for example, leads them to use less fuel. The information-rich dashboard of Toyota’s hybrid Prius and Ford’s new fuel-efficiency “vine”, which grows leaves when you save fuel, are good examples of this approach. Studies of home power meters suggest they encourage homeowners to cut energy use by 10 per cent on average. Persuasive tech that can track the effect of everything you do is the next logical step. For instance, a number of teams are working on cellphone apps that use GPS to guess what you’re doing, and what that means for your carbon footprint. More advanced ideas go beyond providing numerical digests. Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands are using iCat, a robotic cat made by Philips, to advise on energy use. It talks and can move its lips, eyelashes and eyebrows. One experiment showed that when programming a washing machine, people were more inclined to follow energy consumption advice about different cycles when it came from iCat rather than graphs and numbers. That suggests the savings which simple awareness can provoke can be magnified by using more “social” mechanisms to deliver advice. That doesn’t have to mean robots – it could be on-screen characters, for instance. But the friendly car dashboard robot under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows how such “persuasive agents” could develop. Relying heavily on persuasive technology to turn around our wasteful habits would raise ethical questions, though. Do we really want to be surrounded by technology designed to undermine our free will and personal responsibility? The Dutch group using the iCat have shown that flashing subliminal messages can guide people to correctly rank the energy use of appliances: a kind of persuasion most people would probably agree is a step too far. Other persuasive gadgets and services that can tweak our behaviour for the “better” may be less easy to decide on. More on these topics: