Emotion-Sensing Facial Recognition

(Photo via technowize.com)

Are we having fun yet? 

Rana el Kaliouby is the CEO and cofounder of Affectiva, the company that wants to see how annoyed you are while you shop, and eat, and play video games, and just generally do anything that could involve you spending money at some point. She says what’s really wrong with the preponderance of hyper-connected smart devices is that “they’re completely devoid of any ability to tell how annoyed or happy or depressed we are. And that’s a problem.”

Affectiva’s emotion recognition software can be incorporated into all sorts of things in order to provide “deep insight into unfiltered and unbiased consumer emotional responses to digital content.” Essentially, this means that the software allows companies to see exactly how you respond and react when using their website or playing their game, or using their app so that they can make adjustments to improve your experience (and their business). But how do they collect this data? Simple. Webcams. Say hello.

This is what it looks like when you’re having fun!

Are you a game developer? There’s a great tutorial on how to “integrate Affectiva into your game.” They do mention that one would normally ask a beta tester to turn on their camera, but (spoiler alert) the instructions are pretty light on the whole permission thing.

Are you a giant retailer wanting to know how to sell your customers more things? Maybe you can watch them shop or see if they’re satisfied in the check out line (Cloverleaf will put cameras right in your shelving units!) 

But Affectiva doesn’t just want to make you happy, it wants to save your life. If you attended the company’s Emotion AI Summit at the MIT Media Lab in September “for a day of education, imagination, and prognostication,” you heard about attempts to make the “ever growing presence of technology” “the solution” to our inability to accurately predict suicide attempts. At the moment, the tech is still “very experimental.” It’s serious business that would require some significant monitoring of vulnerable populations.

If you think safety and privacy are SO 20th century, here’s the link to be a beta tester on your desktop or phone. Have fun! If you’re reaching for the duct tape to put over your camera right now, it’s probably helpful to know there’s also voice technology in there so you’ll want to cover the microphone too. Have fun.

Ricky John Molloy via Getty Images

The tech is being sold to retail stores right now, so it’s time to ask: Do we really want machines reading our emotions? Can they read them effectively? What if they read a situation wrong and react in an inappropriate way? Can companies use this software to manipulate us? Who is going to monitor this technology? Privacy anyone? We’re on camera all the time when we shop, so is this really any different from what we’ve already been living with?