Why your phone knows you better than you think

We know it’s true, you love your phone. It just doesn’t love you back. Yet.

At the latest Codeworks Meetup, we got a bit emotional with Alberto Betella discussing Empathetic Adaptive Systems, AKA Emotional AI. We discovered that maybe, just maybe, our phones needs to know us better.

What on earth is Emotional AI?

There’s no big difference between Emotional AI and Empathic Adaptive Systems. We’re talking about a new generation of applications that modulate their behaviour according to the emotions of the user. Whether or not you’ve seen the sci-fi drama ‘Her‘, you’ll know how alluring Alexa can be. We’re not pretending we haven’t found Siri just a little bit seductive either. But when Siri starts measuring our emotions? That’s a whole different ball game.

Have no fear

‘‘You can be stressed if Barcelona is winning, you can be stressed if they’re losing’’, Betella explained.

Your team might be winning, but your heart rate paints a staggering picture of peaks and troughs. What if an app could measure that heart rate, along with pupil size and sweat glands during a game? How could that lower stress levels?

Whatever your fears on the ethics, we like to remember good old Marie Curie at this point: There’s no escaping it: AI systems and devices will soon simulate human emotions. And who better to reassure us than our speaker, Alberto Betella, CTO at flatmate finding Badi, the Spanish startup that’s rapidly growing their userbase of city dwellers looking for a flatmate or room.

‘Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood’ – Marie Curie

Betella’s Ideas

Fearing less and understanding all the more, we heard about state-of-the-art technologies for the real-time measurement of human implicit states. Proving that this isn’t the stuff of sci-fi drama, Alberto quoted Picard 1995: “If a machine can recognize my emotions, it can react with me more effectively.”

Betella asked us:

‘What if teachers had real-time data on students’ heart rates? They could use results to improve their teaching, making more eye contact and engaging sleepy students.’’

Or, another learning based example:

“ What if toddlers played a hypothetical game that taught them how to recognise shapes? In a controlled experiment which measured their emotional responses, we could improve the game and improve their learning.’’

To oversimplify his point: the toddlers get bored, the game gets harder. If the toddlers get stressed, the computer measures that emotion, responds, and the game gets easier. That’s an Empathetic Adaptive System.

Early this year, Annette Zimmermann, vice president of research at Gartner, said: “By 2022, your personal device will know more about your emotional state than your own family.” Not only that, a recent study from the University of Ohio claimed that their algorithm was now better at detecting emotions than people are. Here’s how you might chat to your flatmate in 2020:

“How are you feeling?’’

“I don’t know. Ask my phone.’’

But if we flip that cynical view, if we fear less and understand more, along with these machines we can know ourselves better. Anything that saves time endlessly swiping, could reduce our double chins as we look up from our phones at the world around us. Rather than manipulating the way we feel, Emotional AI allows us time away from our phones. That means more time to look at the sky and know thyself. Win-win.

Imagine a future where Badi chooses your flatmate based on all your data, previous selection choices and tangible factors like pupil size and facial recognition. You opt in and save time scrolling through potential flatmates. That’s not in the pipeline yet. But the idea is not so scary after all.

Or imagine if Badi let us measure how different flatmates made us feel. We could spend more time living with relaxed tidy people, and less time tiptoeing around clean freaks. Appealing? Check out PeopleKeeper, the app already letting you measure how people in your life affect your emotions.

How Do You Feel About Emotional AI?

Contrary to Steven Hawking’s view, this is not the end of the human race. As your phone reminds you to take a deep breath during a busy meeting, Emotional AI could even save money on yoga.

Codeworks Graduate and ex-DJ Sherezz left the Meetup with an idea for playlists that could adapt their music according to your changing feelings. Imagine that you’re late for a date, your heart rate is through the roof. Right on cue, your earphones feed you a calming Chopin piano concerto. You turn up to your date calm and dare we say it, attractively cool.

What’s Next?

On a more serious note, Christian from San Francisco asked: ‘‘When will all this end, what’s the limit?’’

Betella’s answer: “One day machines might have a consciousness.”

So there you have it, your laptop might even have a soul one day. In the future, we’ll feel guilty about closing our laptop lids. Sorry computer, I love you really.

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