What did you think of the last commercial you watched? Would you buy the product? You might not remember or know for certain how you felt, but increasingly, machines do. New artificial intelligence technologies are learning and recognizing human emotions, and using that knowledge to improve everything from marketing campaigns to health care. These technologies are referred to as "emotion AI." Emotion AI is a subset of artificial intelligence (the broad term for machines replicating the way humans think) that measures, understands, simulates, and reacts to human emotions.
Growing up in Egypt in the 1980s, Rana el Kaliouby was fascinated by hidden languages--the rapid-fire blinks of 1s and 0s computers use to transform electricity into commands and the infinitely more complicated nonverbal cues that teenagers use to transmit volumes of hormone-laden information to each other. Culture and social stigma discouraged girls like el Kaliouby in the Middle East from hacking either code, but she wasn't deterred. When her father brought home an Atari video game console and challenged the three el Kaliouby sisters to figure out how it worked, Rana gleefully did. When she wasn't allowed to date, el Kaliouby studied her peers the same way that she did the Atari. "I was always the first one to say'Oh, he has a crush on her' because of all of the gestures and the eye contact," she says.
After studying the tribe, which was still living in the preliterate state it had been in since the Stone Age, Ekman believed he had found the blueprint for a set of universal human emotions and related expressions that crossed cultures and were present in all humans. A decade later he created the Facial Action Coding System, a comprehensive tool for objectively measuring facial movement. Ekman's work has been used by the FBI and police departments to identify the seeds of violent behavior in nonverbal expressions of sentiment. He has also developed the online Atlas of Emotions at the behest of the Dalai Lama. And today his research is being used to teach computer systems how to feel.
Artificial intelligence that reads and responds to our emotions is the killer app of the digital economy. It will make customers and employees happier--as long as it learns to respect our boundaries. When psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman visited the Fore tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1967, he probably didn't imagine that his work would become the foundation for some of the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI). After studying the tribe, which was still living in the preliterate state it had been in since the Stone Age, Ekman believed he had found the blueprint for a set of universal human emotions and related expressions that crossed cultures and were present in all humans. A decade later he created the Facial Action Coding System, a comprehensive tool for objectively measuring facial movement.
More and more of our experience online is personalized. Search engines, news outlets and social media sites have become quite smart at giving us what we want. Perhaps Ali, one of the hundreds of people I've interviewed about our emotional attachment to technology, put it best: "Netflix's recommendations have become so right for me that even though I know it's an algorithm, it feels like a friend." Personalization algorithms can shape what you discover, where you focus attention, and even who you interact with online. When these algorithms work well, they can feel like a friend. At the same time, personalization doesn't feel all that personal. There can be an uncomfortable disconnect when we see an ad that doesn't match our expectations. When personalization tracks too closely to interests that we've expressed, it can seem creepy. Personalization can create a filter bubble1 by showing us more of what we've clicked on before, rather than exposing us to new people or ideas.