Happiest Place on Earth

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


Photo by Alan J. Hendry on Unsplash

The happiest place on earth is quite a reputation to uphold and immeasurable effort goes into keeping it that way. As technology rapidly integrates it’s way into our lives, we cannot help but wonder what it is that it is being learned about us. What exactly does it mean to be human?

Disney is on the cutting edge of recognizing patterns in human behavior partly due to the controlled environment we step into when entering one of their fantasy worlds. On the outside there can be an overflow of abstract variables, but inside the enclosure of an amusement park there is much less deviation. Of course the sample set is limited to people that can afford a trip to Disney or live relatively close to Orlando, but such seclusion leads to tightly correlated numbers. There are many layers of technology that go into the security and management of over fifty thousand people in a day. These systems help to make it likely also one of the safest places on earth. For this discussion we will consult two: the Magic Band and video surveillance.

A trip to Disney can be one of the happiest days in the life of a child or an adult. This is not criticism rather an exploration of the further understanding of human development. Walt Disney was arguably one of the best ever at bridging the gap between headspace and reality and we cannot help but wonder if his ideas about EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) went beyond souvenirs from around the world.

It’s a beautiful day at Disneyworld and you and your family get your Magic Bands and set off down Mainstreet USA. These wristbands take the place of room keys and credit cards, but also operate as monitoring devices. You don’t think much in terms of location tracking as this has become standard in your life. You may or may not notice the security cameras and feel safe to be watched. After a ride on It’s a Small World you enjoy watching your name scroll across a screen and laugh at the pictures of yourself from inside the ride. This is a “feeler” or a variable that is presented to the subject to gauge their reaction. On a small scale the subject becomes desensitized and gradually accepts this progression as the new norm. An example would be an ad you receive for tennis shoes after searching something similar and responding with “wow that’s crazy lol”. Whether this numbing effect was the intent or not is beside the point that it is happening.

So what do we know from this minor example? There is a record of our location more or less and a display of our appearance. These analyses are not meant to harm us rather optimize our experience. On Disney’s page you can read all about the efficiencies these systems provide to management. If the wait time is too long for a ride, employees can be sent to help move things along or Donald Duck will appear to divert people elsewhere. The marketing birthed from data mining is a good starting point as it is one we have grown accustomed to seeing. It doesn’t take much to imagine how to calculate trends of purchasing a new lightsaber. What age do they appear to be (likely exact from ticketing info)? What gender? Did a new Star Wars movie just come out? How many people went on the ride? How many purchased something after? Did they appear to be enjoying themselves? A lot can be learned about people by their exterior both individually and collectively. The Disney Research website offers a better understanding of human behavior with various articles about topics such as different degrees of a smile and the meaning behind them.

Words alone can fall far short of communicating what it truly is that we are thinking or feeling. It is near impossible to show someone how much you love them simply by telling them. So much of this is shown through other interactions such as facial expressions and body language. In the case of Disney, this information goes beyond the graphs of consumer tendencies. Did we stay at the park longer if we were happy? How far were we willing to walk after eating three hot dogs for lunch? What is the engagement like between siblings? Does a child seek comfort from a parent after being terrified by a life size Buzz Lightyear? Does disconnect from family members result in gravitation to the Dark Side? The ways in which to plot this data are endless.

We can go on and on with different reference points but the takeaway is that the information is there. The combination of footage collected and computing power give Disney a glimpse into who we are. It is easy to assume that we know ourselves but how much do we know about where we fall on the spectrum? How much do we know about what it is that gives rise to a particular emotion? How much do we know about the collective movement of our species? There is always something to be learned, hypotheses to be tested. As the understanding of human life deepens it becomes easier to detect consistencies or cut them off upstream to change course. This is what makes the closed system at Disney so valuable. They are able to directly present the subject with a product, environment, art, etc. and observe the response.

With the release of the new Dumbo movie we were presented with such an experiment. It was a live movie poster that mirrored the emotion of the person looking at it. If you appeared happy you would be shown an uplifting scene. If you appeared sad, an empathetic one. What does this tell us? Computers are able to gauge to an extent who we are in that moment and react accordingly. From there, who we are is altered or affirmed, even if only slightly. What if the mood you were in was already set in place by a prior AI interaction? Where does that leave us?

Speculation is left up to the reader but it does not take much to wonder. What we do know is that we are being examined. How we behave as humans, the emotions we display, the relationships we develop with each other and our surroundings are all being mapped. Disney is one of the countless researchers yet they have a unique advantage by being cut off from the outside world. There is a deeply symbiotic relationship that forms as people visit and become embedded with the brand. With children, minor behaviors can foreshadow defining personality traits. As they grow, it will gradually become more probable to predict who they will become and potentially engineer the process.