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Researchers Build Smartphone Algorithm That Senses Boredom

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a new twist on a challenge we posed earlier this year on All Tech - try, we said, just try to resist the urge to pull out your phone at the first sign of boredom. We did this with our friends at WNYC in the name of creativity. Research suggests that boredom fosters creativity, but the challenge was tough.

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: Well, it didn't go that well, I guess, if the whole point of this was to get me to use my phone less.

SERRI GRASLIE, BYLINE: I don't know if I'm actually doing any better than I was before.

CORNISH: NPR's Melissa Gray and Serri Graslie after keeping track of their hours on screen. And as if it wasn't hard enough, now comes this news. Researchers wrote an algorithm to help a phone figure out when we are bored so it can offer things to do.

MARTIN PIELOT: We start using the phone in a different way in certain moments of boredom.

CORNISH: This is Martin Pielot of Telefonica Research in Barcelona.

PIELOT: We basically can detect when people start killing time with the phone.

CORNISH: For example, says Pielot's collegue Nuria Oliver, we might quickly browse a lot of apps.

NURIA OLIVER: We go to Twitter, then we go to Facebook. Then we go to you know, some app, then we go to email because we are looking for something interesting.

CORNISH: The phone can infer we are bored. It's correct about 83 percent of the time. One test was a BuzzFeed article. Researchers used the algorithm to push an alert with a link. People who seemed bored were more likely to click. You can imagine where some publishers might take this. The phone could become an even more enticing time waster. On the other hand, says Martin Pielot, this can also be used for good.

PIELOT: If the phone would literally say, hey, do you really need to open Facebook for the third time now in a row? There's not going to be anything new.

CORNISH: Maybe, say the folks at Telefonica Research, when the phone senses boredom, it could urge us to put it down and do something else. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.