Some people will shudder at Hiroki Enno’s idea of a “social experiment,” yet he believes the project could someday benefit society as a whole.
The 28-year-old CEO of Plasma Inc., a Tokyo-based IT company, is paying participants in exchange for allowing him to film their activities at home — 24 hours a day.
The subjects, whose identities are hidden, each received ¥200,000 ($1,830) at the end of month-long Project Exograph. The express purpose of the endeavor, which he describes as a “human record of life,” is to collect data on consumer behavior to be analyzed by businesses and marketing experts for commercial and other uses.
The catch? The participants had to have most areas of their homes — even the toilets — fitted with cameras and now must trust that the videos and their identities will never be divulged to the public.
On YouTube, people have started to create their own reality shows on social media, where many exhibitionists and so-called influencers amuse or bemuse audiences online.
But Enno might be the first to turn this reality on its head because the participants in his project are merely living out their everyday existence, not craving the limelight.
Paradoxically, he aims to make the act of filming a person a very private matter, but one that could benefit the well-being of humankind in a future age of automation, when jobs have become all but obsolete.
“I have a worldview based on science fiction. As artificial intelligence robots develop into the future, there will come a time when people will no longer have to work for a living,” Enno claimed.
“But the one job people will still be able to do is generate their own life data, which we hope to monetize. This will enable them to afford food, clothing and shelter.”
Exograph’s first four
Two men and two women — two 24-year-olds and two 29-year-olds — were selected for the Exograph project from some 1,300 applicants. The only area that was off-limits to cameras during the project was the bathtub. Laptops, connected to the cameras by cables, also recorded audio.
Plasma chose 24 and 29 for the ages of the subjects because most of the applicants came from these two age pools.
Enno pointed out that big tech companies, notably Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, are already purchasing data that people’s digital footprints leave behind.
“Even though these big tech companies are providing information free of charge, people suspect they are secretly taking our data for their own use.
“So I said, what if I did an experiment in a straightforward fashion and properly compensated people for their private data? Would we still face criticism, and what kind of people would respond? This model is the antithesis of big tech companies.”
Enno’s objectives are threefold: Seek ways to socially and economically utilize offline lifestyle data; demonstrate the value of the project despite the intrusive nature of the data-collection process; and pose questions about the value of sensitive private information to society.
“For example, what time does a woman put on her makeup, and so forth? What does a man in his 20s like to drink after a bath? For the companies trying to develop products to figure out consumer behavior, I plan to provide this search engine. But we will take and stock footage in such a way that it is impossible to identify the person.”
What was it like?
One of the four subjects, a woman who lives in a one-room apartment in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, finished her stint on the evening of Dec. 23.
Kyodo News, accompanied by Enno, was there to talk with her before the cameras were removed.
An “education worker” who turned 30 around the start of the project in November, she heard about the project on a TV talk show and was chosen following a web interview.
“I thought that this type of social endeavor would really be interesting,” she said while seated in her tatami room. But she also said she wouldn’t have applied had there been no money involved. “I don’t think I would have done it for ¥100,000. I think ¥200,000 was the cutoff amount.”
Asked what concerned her most about privacy during filming, the woman lamented that the tub was her only refuge.
“When the cameras were installed, I thought this would be tough because there is hardly any place to hide,” she said. “The only place was the bathtub. As the project progressed, I wasn’t nervous, but I never really forgot I was being recorded.”
This was especially true when it came to undressing. She asked Enno to establish a blind spot in the room when the cameras were installed.
“I wasn’t able to completely conceal myself there, but at least I felt somewhat hidden.”
With the cameras placed in the corners of the room in plain view, her mental state changed as the project progressed, she said.
“When I was cooking, my hands would sometimes feel slightly awkward, and I sensed that I was nervous — but nothing extremely out of the ordinary. But I wasn’t quite sure if my behavior changed because of the cameras, or because I struggled to devise ways to keep some degree of privacy in this small apartment.”
The woman, who has an annual income of ¥3 million, said she only told her closest friends about the experiment. She did not tell her family because they are not in touch, she said. “My one or two close friends are like family to me, so there was no reason to keep it a secret. Their response to me doing it was like, ‘Really? Wow!'”
The participants were permitted to quit the project at any time. In such cases, they would still be paid for the number of days they had been filmed. They could also request data be deleted.
The woman temporarily stopped one of the cameras in the third week “for about 30 minutes” when she was feeling under the weather. “I just wanted to escape a bit. I didn’t want to stop completely, just give myself a little break.”
She wasn’t particularly concerned about computer passwords or other private information being divulged unintentionally due to the camera angles, either, she said. “It felt like routines you see people doing these days on YouTube, but I didn’t have a feeling my private information was being monitored.”
She added: “It’s not like I don’t have any fears that the video content could leak. But I really didn’t think about the risks that much. I just thought of this as a social experiment. If I started to be suspicious, there would be no end to it. In that case, I wouldn’t have participated in the first place.”
Enno, an expert in AI image analysis, envisions creating video archives of the content as a cross section of consumer behavior to use in treating lifestyle-based illnesses and developing new medicines.
The woman said she is keen to learn how her data content might be used.
She also said she would be open to taking part in the experiment again, as long as the conditions are right.
“I think I could even do it for another month, but probably not two months,” she said with a smile.
Enno graduated with an engineering degree from Kyoto University in 2014 and started the company Rist as a graduate student there.
Rist developed a system that used AI to visually inspect products in the manufacturing and medical industries. He sold the company to Kyocera Corp. in 2018 before founding Plasma on Nov. 1.
The Exograph project has received criticism on numerous fronts. For example, there are security concerns about the potential for leaks. Others just call it “creepy.”
The company caused a stir in the preliminary stage when it sent out an email that inadvertently revealed many of the applicants’ email addresses to others in the group, prompting the company to issue an apology and compensate those affected.
Plasma also was criticized on the internet for exploiting the poor by initially setting the compensation for participants at about ¥130,000 — the same amount people on welfare receive — before raising the amount to avoid this perception. Some have dubbed it a “poverty business,” that is, an activity that might attract many people who are poor or in desperate need of money.
Where privacy on the internet is concerned, Enno said that people today, especially millennials with a strong degree of literacy in information technology, understand there is a trade-off for the convenience of using web services such as YouTube and Google for free: You become the target of ads by the companies that are trading your private data.
“What’s interesting about criticism over security concerns is the same thing could be said about the big tech companies who are online. My project is offline and out in the open. But if a person does a search about ‘how to commit adultery’ on Google, I think that is even more dangerous because it gives a clear picture of what that person is thinking.”
Enno hopes people who participate in future Exograph projects can find a purpose — a sense of happiness and dignity — in their real life by contributing their data for others. He suggests there is little resistance to surrending privacy today, especially among millennials.
“YouTube is entertainment content. It’s a choice, but I think of our project as a private human activity — the subjects are selling their privacy, but it is still very personal compared to a YouTuber. There is no craving the limelight.”
What is off-limits?
So does Enno think anything is too private to be recorded, whether online or off?
“Personally, I don’t think anything is. Of course, this usually means things of a sexual nature, sexual content, or acts. But as animals, we all do it, so there’s nothing disgraceful. You can see such images by doing searches on Google or your smartphone … But there should be a choice of whatever a person agrees to show concerning their private life. For people who think their life is too private, they shouldn’t participate,” he said.
Even so, critics such as Teppei Koguchi, an associate professor in the college of informatics at Shizuoka University, said people participating in the Exograph project should beware of the risks. Even if their personally identifiable characteristics are blotted out by video editing, subjects can potentially be identified by their surroundings if their footage is leaked.
“Even if a subject agrees to the conditions of the project, there is a limit to what an individual has decisions over,” Koguchi said. “Their assumptions are not always correct, and sometimes they regret what they’ve done. Such a business must proceed with the understanding of these limitations.”
The male-to-female applicant ratio was 4 to 1, and 80 percent were in their 20s to early 30s, with incomes between ¥2 million and ¥4 million — closely aligned with Japan’s income distribution for that age group. Some earned over ¥10 million per year.
About 60 percent of the applicants were single and 40 percent were living together. Nearly 75 percent were employed, while 7 percent were jobless and 18 percent were students. Those who applied for the money alone accounted for 20 percent, but 60 percent said they were doing so both for the money and because they found the project intriguing, and the rest to contribute their life data for the benefit of others.
Enno said Plasma has applied for an international patent and is already receiving inquiries from several companies about experimenting on a much larger sample.
Going forward, he plans to consult consumer goods manufacturers, food and beverage companies, advertising agencies, and medical care firms about the commercial applications and specific services companies might offer people for private video content. He hopes to announce his findings at the end of the month.
Enno said that for the data the project generates to be reliable and useful, he will need to scale up to the point where he is filming at least 10,000 individuals at home.
“The more data that are shared, the easier it will be to realize overall optimization in the world. So a model data economy would be one where individuals can each share their private information and be compensated appropriately,” Enno said.