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Looking for some DATING SUPERPOWERS?

Speed sniffing, brain imagers might be just the ticket

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When you're single and going on lots of dates, you start to wish you had some sort of dating superpower. Perhaps a Spidey sense to help you differentiate Ms. Right from Ms. Wrong. Or a charm spell to win over that dreamy person who's out of your league. Or -- for efficiency's sake -- the capacity to be on three dates at the same time.

If we extrapolate from current trends, we might imagine superpowered dating in the future will involve further advances in communication. All the cutting-edge dating tech these days is focused on using the Internet to throw people in touch with one another. There are online services such as OkCupid, which scour thousands of sortable profiles. There are apps such as Blendr, which alert you to the presence of available singles in your geographic vicinity. And there's Bang Your Friends, which turns your Facebook account into an underground sex club.

For the sake of this story, and because my editor suggested it, I tried out Bang Your Friends. The app showed me profile photos of all my female Facebook contacts -- including my sister, my mother and many moms holding up their toddlers for the camera. Then it asked me to click on each of the photos I was "Down to Bang." This made me wonder if perhaps at this point we've maxed out on the Internet as a dating aid.

The real breakthrough in future dating might not be about sifting through and encountering more prospects than we ever could meet IRL. It might be about more quickly and accurately determining which people are particularly good matches for us. That could be a job better suited to biotech.

Will McIntosh is the author of the sci-fi novel Love Minus Eighty, set 100 years into the future, in which attractive dead people are cryogenically preserved, partially reanimated, and allowed to date from beyond the grave. McIntosh has spent a lot of time contemplating the future of hooking up. "I think one exciting possibility is more use of brain imaging," he says. "Using an fMRI, we might see exactly what love looks like in a brain."

McIntosh envisions us examining our own brain activity to empirically determine whether an emotion is love or lust. Or -- using some discreet, futuristic device -- we might look into our date's brain to see if its patterns suggest feelings of affection, boredom or contempt. "People also lie so much, particularly in the early stages of meeting someone," says McIntosh. "With brain imaging we might be close to having a foolproof lie detector. I could see that coming in handy for speed dating."

Patricia Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, seems to think we could just ditch speed dating altogether and replace it with speed sniffing. "We pick up a lot of cues from pheromones," she says. She notes studies that show body odours can be excellent predictors of romantic compatibility.

"We can smell a good mate," says Brennan, an expert on duck genitalia. She explains the key lies in the composition of our immune system, specifically the cell-surface molecules known as the major histocompatibility complex. "We want someone whose MHC is very different from our own. That signals a different immune system, which will translate into having kids who have more genetic diversity and can fight off more diseases and parasites."

Right now, this sniff test all happens subconsciously -- and only after we're close enough to a person to inhale his or her musk. But it's possible to imagine a time when we could easily scan a roomful of people using a sensor that could identify which ones have an MHC complementary to our own. Those people are the ones we should have kids with. And they're the ones that we might expect will be most attracted to us once they get a whiff of our pheromones. So, theoretically, all we'd need to do is make a beeline for the most genetically compatible person, get within nostril range, and let nature do its work.

Or why not just integrate MHC into online dating? Along with your height, education, and age, you could post your own MHC readings. The dating-site algorithms could incorporate them into their searches for your perfect match.

I confess, I'd be tempted to peek at brain imaging if it meant I could know precisely how I feel toward someone, or how she feels toward me, without confusion and self-doubt clouding things up. I'd likewise pay very close attention to MHC if it meant a guarantee that I'd have healthy, hearty kids. Still, while technology and romance can without doubt be exciting partners (remember, this is the combo that brought the world sexting!) I wonder if new kinds of tech that take the guesswork out of love could also ruin a lot of the fun.

-- Slate

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down-to-Earth Journey Around the World.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2013 A2

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