- The Danger of Measuring Emotions
An easy way to identify a future dilemma is to spot two polar, but entirely sensible, reactions to an emerging practice or technology. Which is just what I happened to find when reading through a couple recent articles on new efforts to measure emotions–which, depending on your perspective, will either open up huge opportunities to improve the lives of autistic children, or usher in a massive invasion of personal privacy. Or both.
Let’s start with the less controversial application. As Technology Review reports, a Massachusetts-based startup company called Affectiva has developed a wearable bracelet that can measure “stress and excitement by measuring slight electrical changes in the skin.” In effect, the wearable bracelet can provide continuous, real-time monitoring for changes in emotional states–and offer a tool to help caregivers of autistic children, who frequently struggle to express emotions.
It works like this:
When a person–autistic or not–experiences stress or enters a “flight or fight” mode, moisture collects under the skin (often leading to sweating) as a sympathetic nervous system response….
“When you see this flight-or-fight response, it doesn’t tell you it’s definitely stress, it just tells you something has changed,” says [MIT’s Rosalind] Picard. “Are they excited, hurting, are they stressed by a sound or person in the room? It doesn’t perfectly correspond to stress as it can also go up with anticipation and excitement, but when you see it change, you know something’s going on and you can look for the cause.” She adds that having clues to a person’s stress levels, which might not otherwise be detectable, could give caregivers and researchers more insight–and possibly a way to anticipate–the harmful behaviors of autism, such as head banging. Caregivers can try to identify and block sources of stress and learn what activities restore calm.
With an example like a child banging his head against the wall due to unexpressed emotion, it’s easy to see how caregivers could benefit from a tool like that helps them anticipate emotional distress.
Of course, it’s also to see how just about anyone could benefit from having a better understanding of the emotions of others. I’d love to know, for example, which parts of my research presentations trigger strong biochemical reactions.
And, it turns out, I’m not the only one who would like to have the ability to measure other people’s emotions–and that’s beginning to cause some backlash. As Fast Company reports, the U.K.-based security firm Aralia Systems is developing a security camera that can detect emotional responses–even in the darkness of a movie theater.
The intention is to produce rich data that can measure the details of an individual’s face. Aralia will leverage 3-D face recognition technology that the university is already developing. When you sit in the audience of a theater with their system, you’ll be illuminated with an infra-red beam, and three or more cameras will continually monitor the crowd to create stereoscopic images–just like the 3-D digital cameras that are now launching on the consumer markets.
The system should be able to detect a great deal. It will know the direction your face is pointing in, your expression, whether you’re shocked by something, whether you’re sitting in a family group or on your own, at what point you get bored, and so on. This is invaluable data for marketers, who can gauge how well their ad messages are getting across. Potentially, they could change the ad’s placement in the reel between showings to see if they get a better reaction.
Computer World, in an article titled “Anti-Pirating tool will harvest and market your emotions,” reacted by describing the system as “a massive invasion of privacy.” Which, despite the alarmist language, sounds fairly reasonable. I don’t know many people who want their emotions to be continuously and surreptitiously monitored by random businesses.
And that brings me back to the core dilemma here. In the coming decade, data about our individual bodies–including our subjective states–has enormous potential to improve our lives. We will rely on innovations, like the two I’ve mentioned here, to help us measure those subjective states. And at times, we may benefit, enormously so, from having the ability to share these shifts in emotional states with others.
But our moment-to-moment emotions are incredibly personal. Many of us go to great lengths to keep hidden and have absolutely no interest in having others track, measure and mine those emotions without asking.