Emotion Data Spotlights the Balance Between Insight and Privacy

by   |   July 7, 2015 5:30 am   |   0 Comments

Bernard Marr

Bernard Marr

In these days of the primacy of big data analytics, computers can determine where you are, identify where you are going, predict whether or not you are pregnant or if you have a disease, and even recognize your face when you walk into a room.

And now, computers can use data to tell what you are feeling.

A startup called Affectiva has developed software that can accurately predict the emotions of a person based on their facial expressions upwards of 80 percent of the time. And, according to some suggestions, it can more specifically pinpoint emotions that you may not even be able to articulate, with options in its database that include feelings such as “sadly disgusted” and “fearfully angry.”

Rana el Kaliouby, who founded Affectiva, started her company and her research because she was concerned about how screen time was affecting the emotional intelligence of young children. Recognizing that eliminating technology wasn’t an option in today’s connected world, she instead wondered if she could give the technology itself a higher EQ – and Affectiva was born.

Applying Emotional Intelligence

So far, the software is used mainly for market research and to help train children with Asperger Syndrome recognize the emotions of others. Television network CBS uses the technology to test television pilots. Companies like Coca-Cola and Mars are using it to test advertisements. And Affectiva made its foray into the political arena by watching reactions to the Obama/Romney debates and predicting voter choice with 73 percent accuracy.

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Computers can tell, by reading people’s facial expressions, the difference between fake pain and real pain, and even help determine if a patient is depressed. A controlled study showed that computers could predict when people would turn down a financial offer based on their expressions.

All of that information is marketing gold to companies interested in perfecting their advertising, but it’s just scratching the surface of what the technology might do. Programs are being developed that can analyze a student’s emotions during learning programs and then adapt to meet the student’s needs. Other suggestions include a refrigerator that could tell when you are depressed and steer you away from that bowl of chocolate ice cream.

What About Privacy?

The Affectiva technology is based on the pioneering work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered study in the area of how facial expressions relate to emotion. Interestingly, Ekman himself has expressed serious concerns about the potential for violating privacy with these programs asking, who has the right to know your emotions?

Ekman worries that this technology, in conjunction with everything else companies now know about us – from data collected about our Internet searches to our Facebook posts, our Foursquare check-ins to the GPS data on our phones – could become incredibly invasive and potentially dangerous.

“The clever use of this invasive technology will attempt to provoke us by triggering engineered emotional events, without prior consent for having our emotions triggered, or having our emotions read, or having our emotions linked to our identity and everything that is already stored about us (what we buy, where we go, who we live with, and who knows what else),” Eckman wrote in a blog post on the topic.

Indeed, as the uses for this technology grow, so do the implications. A competitor of Skype is looking to build Affectiva technology into its video calling service – but to what end? To help users understand one another better, or to gather data?

“People are doing more and more videoconferencing, but all this data is not captured in an analytic way,” Kaliouby told The New Yorker. “The technology will say, ‘O.K., Mr. Whatever is showing signs of engagement—or he just smirked, and that means he was not persuaded.’ ”

Not long ago, emotions would not have been considered data points – too hard to examine and quantify. But with new technologies like this, emotion can become just another KPI in a variety of applications. Because we now have the analytic power to look at previously untapped data,  like video from any number of sources, we can start to include emotions in the bevy of data points that help paint a bigger picture for a company, an organization, or a government.

Hopefully, the technology will be applied to good uses – as Kaliouby intended. But as with all technologies, attention must be paid to the privacy and ethical implications it raises.

What do you think of a computer that can tell what you’re thinking? Is it useful, or creepy? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.

Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, strategic performance consultant, and analytics, KPI, and big data guru. He helps companies to better manage, measure, report, and analyze performance. His leading-edge work with major companies, organizations, and governments across the globe makes him an acclaimed and award-winning keynote speaker, researcher, consultant, and teacher.

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