These Computer Programs “Feel You”


Rhafi Khatchadhourian at the New Yorker takes a look at new developments in recognition software that are game changers on computers interpreting our emotive reactions to what we are reading/viewing on our electronic devices.

Like every company in this field, Affectiva relies on the work of Paul Ekman, a research psychologist who, beginning in the sixties, built a convincing body of evidence that there are at least six universal human emotions, expressed by everyone’s face identically, regardless of gender, age, or cultural upbringing. Ekman worked to decode these expressions, breaking them down into combinations of forty-six individual movements, called “action units.” From this work, he compiled the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS—a five-hundred-page taxonomy of facial movements. It has been in use for decades by academics and professionals, from computer animators to police officers interested in the subtleties of deception.

Ekman has had critics, among them social scientists who argue that context plays a far greater role in reading emotions than his theory allows. But context-blind computers appear to support his conclusions. By scanning facial action units, computers can now outperform most people in distinguishing social smiles from those triggered by spontaneous joy, and in differentiating between faked pain and genuine pain. They can determine if a patient is depressed. Operating with unflagging attention, they can register expressions so fleeting that they are unknown even to the person making them. Marian Bartlett, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead scientist at Emotient, once ran footage of her family watching TV through her software. During a moment of slapstick violence, her daughter, for a single frame, exhibited ferocious anger, which faded into surprise, then laughter. Her daughter was unaware of the moment of displeasure—but the computer had noticed. Recently, in a peer-reviewed study, Bartlett’s colleagues demonstrated that computers scanning for “micro-expressions” could predict when people would turn down a financial offer: a flash of disgust indicated that the offer was considered unfair, and a flash of anger prefigured the rejection.

[Rana el] Kaliouby often emphasizes that this technology can read only facial expressions, not minds, but Affdex is marketed as a tool that can make reliable inferences about people’s emotions—a tap into the unconscious.

via We Know How You Feel.

Reading this piece, I was especially brought back to consider the history of psychology and computer coding as utilized in corporate and government media in the Society of Control. Nobody talks about the broader historic factors involved with this better than Adam Curtis in The Century of Self and the newer All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

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