Perhaps you’re familiar with Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, an android endowed with advanced artificial intelligence but no feelings—he’s incapable of feeling joy or sadness. Yet Data aspires to more. He wants to be a person! So his creator embarks on a multiseason quest to develop the “emotion chip” that would fulfill that dream.
As you watch the show, it’s hard not to wonder about the end point of this quest. What would Data do first? Comfort a grieving person? Share a fellow crewmate’s joy? Laugh at a joke? Make a joke? Machine learning has already produced software that can process human emotions, reading micro expressions better than humans can and generally cataloguing what may be going on inside a person just from scanning his or her face.
And right out of the gate, advertisers and marketers have jumped on this technology. For example, Coca-Cola has hired a company called Affectiva, which markets emotion-recognition software, to fine-tune ads. As usual, money is driving this not so noble quest: research shows that ads that trigger strong emotional reactions are better at getting us to spend than ads using rational or informational approaches. Emotional recognition can also be used in principle for pricing and marketing in ways that just couldn’t be done before. As you stand before that vending machine, how thirsty do you look? Prices may change accordingly. Hungry? Hot dogs may get more expensive.
This technology will almost certainly be used along with facial-recognition algorithms. As you step into a store, cameras could capture your countenance, identify you and pull up your data. The salesperson might get discreet tips on how to get you to purchase that sweater—Appeal to your ego? Capitalize on your insecurities? Offer accessories and matching pieces?—while coupons customized to lure you start flashing on your phone. Do the databases know you have a job interview tomorrow? Okay, here’s a coupon for that blazer or tie. Are you flagged as someone who shops but doesn’t buy or has limited finances? You may be ignored or even tailed suspiciously.
One potential, and almost inevitable, use of emotion-recognition software will be to identify people who have “undesirable” behaviors. As usual, the first applications will likely be about security. At a recent Taylor Swift concert, for example, facial recognition was reportedly used to try to spot potential troublemakers. The software is already being deployed in U.S. airports, and it’s a matter of time before it may start doing more than identifying known security risks or stalkers. Who’s too nervous? Who’s acting guilty?
In more authoritarian countries, this software may turn to identifying malcontents. In China, an app pushed by the Communist party has more than 100 million registered users—the most downloaded app in Apple’s digital store in the nation. In a country already known for digital surveillance and a “social credit system” that rewards and punishes based on behavior the party favors or frowns on, it’s not surprising that so many people have downloaded an app that the New York Times describes as “devoted to promoting President Xi Jinping.” Soon people in China may not even be able to roll their eyes while they use the app: the phone’s camera could gauge their vivacity and happiness as they read Xi’s latest quotes, then deduct points for those who appear less than fully enthusiastic.
It’s not just China: the European Union is piloting a sort of “virtual agent” at its borders that will use what some have called an “AI lie detector.” Similar systems are being deployed by the U.S. government. How long before companies start measuring whether customer service agents are smiling enough? It may seem like a giant leap from selling soda to enforcing emotional compliance, and there can certainly be some positive uses for these technologies. But the people pushing them tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the potential downside. Remember Facebook’s feel-good early days?
If Data had ever been able to feel human emotions, he might have been surprised by how important greed and power are in human societies—and “emotional AI,” unless properly regulated, could be a key tool for social control. That should give us all unhappy faces.