Twitter bot @_whatishappy states in its bio: "I am a machine trying to understand what happiness is," and the phrasings of many of its tweets ("My daughter joyed the car," and "Talking with a friend's new puppy") don't make enough sense to convince many judges that there is a human behind the account. Although @_whatishappy is certainly not a contender for the Turing test, it may have a better shot at passing another famous bot-or-not test: the Voigt-Kampff.

Voigt-Kampff testing Mechanical Turk

The Voigt-Kampff is a polygraph-like test from Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" popularized in the 1982 film Blade Runner. It consists of a series of questions designed to provoke an emotional response, and it's what the agencies that hunt down replicants, human-identical androids that have gone rogue in the dystopian Los Angeles of an alternate universe 2019, use to determine whether they are dealing with a replicant or a real human being. Replicants don't have emotions, and although they can become good at imitating them, their lack of empathy (or unwillingness to complete the test and be found out) is what gives them away as robots and fair game for replicant hunters to eliminate.

Megagon Labs (formerly Recruit Institute of Technology) may not have had such life or death stakes in mind when they used Mechanical Turk to create their database of 10,000 crowd-sourced happy moments contained in HappyDB, but unwittingly or not, they Voigt-Kampff tested a large population.

As MONTAG previously explored in Turkin' for the Weekend, there are a lot of ways that Turkers use automation to try to maximize their productivity and profit, but filling out surveys automatically is strictly forbidden. The human insight in regards to each question is the key value of the platform. Asking a question like the one posed by Megagon Labs, "What made you happy today?" that requires reflection and an emotional response is exactly the kind of data that seems like it can only be generated by humans – but a replicant would have no problem passing this test, and it appears that many of the "human" workers, when asked for three different discrete happiness moments in the last 24 hours, provided less than emotionally authentic answers.

Within the data, there's a smattering of repurposed text: one replicant Turker has copy-pasted three paragraphs of a free (to plagiarize) essay about the Taj Mahal, another a blog post about the manifold benefits of a morning walk. These could be the responses of human Turkers using copy-paste to fill out surveys with the same garbage text every time, and hoping that whoever is looking at the results doesn't read too closely. But one response really stands out: the first line of the Wikipedia page about a song by Welsh rock band Feeder that hit #13 on the UK Singles Chart entitled "Feeling the Moment." Based on the question posed by Megagon which includes the phrase "Write down your happy moment in a complete sentence. (Write three such moments.)" it is clear that this answerer was indeed a robot, and while they have hit on a moment, the feeling is conspicuously absent.

Happiness in slavery

The @_whatishappy bot, created by Berlin-based artist Matthias Planitzer calls attention to the situation of the human laborers, as Planitzer writes, "At its core, a lot of the wondrous success machine learning achieves today is more or less secretly founded on menial tasks assigned to the anonymous labour brigade. At its worst, it always contains every bias, however miniscule it might seem, to be found in its database. What bias may such a machine analysing a huge survey about the happiness of the exploited worker amplify?"

Although the bot spits out often mundane and nonsensical phrases (it has a propensity for adding "delicious" as a modifier to anything, regardless of edibility), the data set it's working from does reveal a lot of moments of happiness that are objectively kind of sad. 3,277 of the 101,093 responses contain the word "job" and 11,592 contained the word "work," (about 15% together) Here are a few of those from the raw data:

27857, "Well yesterday started off  early waking up at 5 am to do mturk  task and I woke up to find  I got a unexpected bonus. Being someone just  hardly scraping by  between disability checks  and  some small side jobs  that dont  pay  enough to cover the bills  even a  75 cent bonus   is a help  and honestly its  just nice  to see  my work is helping."
30205, "I am happy because I currently live in a shelter and I am unemployed and I was just offered a full time job. I have been unemployed for over 6 months and I lost all of my possessions. I will have to start my life over from the beginning."
31229, "I stuck to a harsh work schedule that I made for myself."
29788, "I'm making some really good money tonight. Between my regular job and this."

The precarious nature of MTurk work and the conditions under which its workers participate in it, working multiple jobs or supplementing income due to disability or unemployment, are evident in many of these responses, and most feeling people would agree they are not in a happy place.

Find your bliss

You can still participate in a similar survey to this happiness test at Lab in the Wild, where after submitting your three happy moments, they show you how common the things that make you happy are. This is done by analyzing the text and categorizing it into 7 sources of happiness: exercise, nature, leisure, bonding, affection, enjoying the moment, or achievement.

There are happy moments in the data that, despite somewhat unsavory content, fit neatly into these categories. Acquiring and shooting guns and smoking drugs qualify as leisure (31349, "I added more guns to my collection and have had fun shooting them at the range." and 31391, "When I cleaned a nugget and loaded it into my bowl, then added fire to it.") While being free of blood cancer and acquiring a new iPhone both qualify as achievements. There are many responses speaking of family and friends, evidenced by this word cloud from the HappyDB GitHub Pages site with bold "family," "husband," "daughter," "wife," "son," "sister."

But "work" is still there in the center of all the other sources of happiness in life.

What is stunning about the data set is the diversity of the responses: happinesses as big as seeing the ultrasound of a new baby and as small as completing a level in a video game all count as happiness. And some workers are just happy to be alive:

31380, "I woke up everyday last month and was alive semi healthy so it made me happy and it continues to make me happy to breath air and see another day life is too short and everyone is in a hurry and busy and life just keeps going by faster and faster then boom. one day it is all over and frivolous little things like filling out this survey will all mean nothing it will be done and over with. So something that made me happy last month was the fact that i'm still here this month to tell you about it living life for as long as i possibly can and enjoying it as much as i can makes me extremely happy and it should you too :)"

The @_whatishappy bot probably won't ever understand what happiness is, since it can't know the feeling of making an extra $0.75, shooting a gun, or sparking up a bowl. But what it speaks to in the human condition is the ability for us to find happiness everywhere. Humanity can find happiness simply in being alive, even when toiling for pennies at automated tasks that ask them to manufacture proof of an emotional response.

As respondent 29796 says: "THE FACT THAT I AM STILL ALIVE UNTIL TODAY THAT MAKES ME HAPPY." And maybe that's enough.

Permalink