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It's going to be emotional


Have you ever had the urge to throw your computer out of the window? I know I have! The root cause of such emotional outbursts is often the fact that machines exhibit no empathy. For all the technological advances in computational power, ability to process data on a massive scale and an increasing improvements in AI, the devices and software we interact with on a daily basis remains largely emotionally inert.

This could be about to change as a result of dramatic progress in the field of affective computing – the branch of computer science concerned with enabling the recognition, interpretation, processing and simulation of human emotion. The field is not new – it gained prominence through research lead by Rosalind Picard at the MIT media in the 1990s – but recent developments spanning neuroscience, psychology, software development and robotics mean that today’s businesses now have the capability to engage employees and customers at an emotional level, creating new opportunities for human machine interaction and symbiotic working.

So why is this important? For me, the reason is that the technologies of affective computing have the potential to transform our interactions with machines and our fellow humans at a fundamental level. There is already speculation that ‘the emotional economy’ may represent the next major evolution of our current ‘information economy’.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider some of the impacts of machines being able to measure emotion in increasingly sophisticated ways, even down to the level of micro-expressions – emotions so fleeting that we may not be aware that we’ve even had them. Companies such as Affectiva have now developed products that are capable of reading subtle emotional nuances far more effectively than any human can.

It is easy to see how this kind of capability might benefit eLearning where the style and presentation is updated depending on whether the learner is experiencing anger, frustration, boredom or delight. There are also compelling therapeutic applications, for example in the treatment of autism where recognising and processing emotion is a challenge. Ellie – an AI psychotherapist developed by DARPA and the Institute of Creative Technologies has already demonstrated the clinical benefits of being able to detect emotion and non-verbal cues.

There are numerous other business scenarios where such capabilities would be beneficial. Advertisers and marketers would be able to gain far deeper insight into the sentiments of consumers – this is already happening in the emerging discipline of neuromarketing, which seeks to better understand and unlock the scarce resource of human attention. It is also possible to envisage situations where employees in safety critical roles have their emotional state monitored to minimise the risk of accidents.

This last example points to the potential dark side of affective computing. Like any technology it could be used for good or ill, and its widespread deployment would demand a complete redefinition of privacy. Suddenly making public, what have throughout history been highly private and personal inner experiences, is likely to be highly controversial and resisted by many who do not wish to see transparency extended to the emotional level. This emotional data will be highly intimate, and hence, both highly valuable and open to abuse. It could also take surveillance by governments and employers to entirely new levels of intrusiveness.

Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine a future world that benefits greatly from greater emotional connectivity with technology. Consider the many scenarios put forward for the Internet of Things and think about how much more valuable it would be if the environment, whether at home or at work, was more sensitive and sympathetic to our emotional state. At the very least it might stop you getting to the point where you want to throw your computer out of the window.

What would your organisation do with the capability to recognise emotions?

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