Guest Contributor – Exponential Investor (Great Britain) –
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Facebook’s every-creepy overreach into our lives just got a whole lot worse. According to The Grauniad, Facebook can now:
Of course, sentiment analysis isn’t new. It’s deployed extensively in many useful-but-dull roles – tracking everything from angry call-centre users (CallMiner), to customers dissing brands on social media (Trackur). Nevertheless, mood-related advertising makes for great dystopian headlines, like “Evil corporation manipulates vulnerable users into paying money”. Despite the hype, salespeople have been doing this for millennia – and a technological approach isn’t necessarily any less ethical. Behind the hubristic headlines, the real story is far more nuanced. Today, we’ll unpack it.
It’s all about teaching computers to understand how we’re feeling
As soon as you meet friends and colleagues, you know whether they’re having a good day – or a horrid one. By contrast, my dumb phone has fewer social skills than a dog. Like an excitable toddler, it doesn’t know not to call for attention when I’m on the loo. It also can’t work out that a family argument is a bad time to interrupt me with updates from long-forgotten acquaintances.
If computers could get an understanding of emotion and context, they’d be far more useful. Fortunately, this kind of awareness is now being built into our digital experiences. One product that’s designed to help with this is Attelia. This monitors your device use, and defers notifications until you’re not engrossed in something else.
Ubiquitous cameras allow our hardware to keep a constant eye on us. Furthermore, there are plenty of other data sources to tap into – such as that derived from our gait, and speech. Modern phones track such metrics routinely – eg, to establish how we’re travelling. Emotional inferences from this data will come rapidly. Of course, it would be nice if the convenience of users was the driving force. However, if you’re not paying, then you’re the product. Facebook profits by looking after its advertisers, not its users. Expect Machiavellian manipulation to be the primary use case.
A very basic form of interaction in this manner is the way that Samsung smartphones can infer attention, by tracking your gaze. This keeps their screen active only while you’re looking at it. This technology will soon become much more sophisticated. We’ve previously explored one possible future for eye-tracking. In our “Day in 2050” series, people use “e-glasses” instead of smartphones – and eye tracking underpins most device interaction.
We’ll soon be bringing you an interview, looking at one particularly use case for emotion-tracking tech: children’s toys. The Furbies of old are giving way to a new generation of playthings, with much more sophisticated interaction possibilities. If toys can recognise a child’s mood, they can guide socially acceptable behaviour – much as a parent might do. For example, a child might get credits awarded for managing temper tantrums. Alternatively, a thrown or kicked toy might refuse to do as it’s told, or chastise the child. We can expect an ever-increasing range of toys to incorporate such technologies. One potential concern is the risk of confusing children as to the boundary between sentient beings and inanimate objects. It’s all very well being “nice” to electronic toys – but will that make kids more likely to kick their pets?
There are similar use cases for adults. Devices around your home could change the way they act, according to your facial expressions and mood. Applications also exist beyond the home, such as out on the road. A car that recognises when you’re tired or angry can encourage you to take breaks, slow down or take the bus. Mercedes-Benz has already made moves in this regard – incorporating an alertness monitoring system into some of its cars, called Attention Assist.
A more sophisticated attention-tracking technology is neurofeedback bands, used by firms like Neuro-Insight (see our previous interview). These allow direct monitoring of engagement, attention and alertness. It makes perfect sense to monitor brain function in this way. After all, the Croydon tram crash was believed to have been caused by a driver falling asleep. Who wouldn’t be in favour of a device to check that pilots and train drivers are actually awake? Obviously, autonomous vehicles offer a more complete solution – but alertness and engagement monitoring is a cheap, effective safety add-on.
Beyond mood monitoring, technology of this type has a huge range of uses in healthcare. Soon, we’ll be exploring exactly this issue – so keep checking your inbox.
What do you think of this topic? Just send us a selfie; we’ll work out the rest: firstname.lastname@example.org.