IBM Watson can read your personality from an email – and it’s creepily accurate

100 words is all it takes

Watson, the artificial intelligence so canny it won Jeopardy in 2011, can now read your mind (or your personality at least).

IBM has released the system’s new Personality Insights service, which measures personality traits by processing a 100-word piece of text; like an email, Facebook message or blog post.

“Watson is a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer,” the IBM website states.

“The IBM Watson Personality Insights service uses linguistic analytics to extract a spectrum of cognitive and social characteristics from the text data that a person generates through blogs, tweets, forum posts, and more.”


While I won’t dive into the complexities of Watson’s inner workings just yet, it’s the end result of the system’s analytics that is really fascinating.

After Watson has interpreted your writing, it offers up a written summary of your personality, warts and all.

For those who like their data succinct, there is also a percentage breakdown of your “needs” (love, excitement, stability etc), and “values” (conservation, hedonism, self-enhancement and so on).

The personality test also measures how much you align with 30 traits, ranging from self-discipline to modesty and adventurousness to fieryness. (These are divided into the five key sections of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional range).

If this all sounds a little complicated, you’ll be happy to hear that this is also presented in a nifty data visualisation that maps your very being.

Most people, through either boredom or procrastination, have taken an internet personality quiz at some point, but I have never received results that appear to be so frighteningly accurate.

For me the only kink was being repetitively told “you are unconcerned with art” by the nearly-all-knowing Watson. (I am an arts graduate and I love music, film, art and photography).

What was most interesting however, was the way the results differ between what text you choose to put forward.

A fairly formal email to a former tutor showed my personality to be “restrained” and “driven”.

“You are relatively unconcerned with taking pleasure in life,” Watson said. “You prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.”

By comparison, a Facebook message to a close friend was deemed “cheerful” and “joyful”, and prompted Watson to suggest the contrary: “You consider taking pleasure in life to guide a large part of what you do: you are highly motivated to enjoy life to its fullest.”

Notably, a job application cover letter conveyed me as “analytical”, “compassionate” and “independent”: clearly on some level I wanted to put all these positive traits forward in order to get hired.

While these different results could be read as discrepancies, I would argue that they actually reflect just how accurate Watson is at picking up different tones and emotions: few people feel or write one way all of the time.

In fact, one of the only problems I found with Watson is that I actually rarely communicate in blocks of 100-words, but instead via text or messaging platforms like Facebook or Slack (to process these I simply copied and pasted in several snippets, which may well have skewed the results).

Watson also seemed particularly confused by shortened words and slang, and on more than one occasion I received a pop-up saying that the system was unable to match enough “words from our lexicon.” No more emojis for me.

If like me you’re a curious person (65% curious to be exact), try Watson’s Personality Insights out for yourself.

Picture from IBM

This post appeared originally on The Memo on July 30, 2015