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BW Businessworld

Your Tech, Your Feelings

If you thought your emotions were your business alone, forget it. Computers, wearables, phones and even your connected home will soon know exactly how you feel

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It was bound to happen. With all the technology around being able to detect your face, your gestures, your voice, it was only a matter of time before it also began to know exactly how you feel. It’s a frightening thought — but inevitable.

Technology that can detect, track and measure human emotions is already well underway. Is that good news, or bad? As it turns out, like everything else, both. Technology is the new mood ring.

For the love of measures
Somewhere over the past decade, a movement called Self Quantification turned up. Human beings cannot resist knowing more about themselves and having what they suspect validated through an external source. Today fitness trackers are satisfying the need for people to know more about themselves, to some extent. You’ll probably know how well you slept last night, but the tracker telling you is quite another thing.

While some people pooh-pooh this sort of information away, others thrive on it. In fact, self-measuring can get so addictive and self-absorbing that self quantification has become something of a cult with its members tracking so much (one woman actually wore over 25 sensors) that the measuring activity becomes their life.

In its simplest form, technology will track your emotions by using your own direct input. An app into which you log how you feel, an emoticon in a messenger that puts on record your state of mind, or indeed that Like button that tells your friends — and Facebook — what makes you happy.

Shopping what you feel
It’s no secret that Facebook’s interest in how its users feel is to target them better with advertising. Whether this is ethical or not has been a long-standing debate but what has troubled privacy activists more is the possible use of data on users’ emotions to shape and influence their behaviour. Studies by Facebook that actually tinkered with this, alarmed everyone. But using detected emotion to personalise, say, a shopping experience, doesn’t seem so bad.

UniQlo, the clothing brand, decided to have some fun with offering a huge range of T-shirts to suit a wearer’s moods. First, a customer would be made to sit down and watch a bunch of video clips depicting different emotion-inducing scenes, from kittens to earthquakes. Having quickly mapped the person’s emotions, and figured out what he or she was feeling at that particular time, the person would be offered T-Shirts meant to match the feeling. It’s mostly a gimmick, largely inaccurate, but still fun and an example of where marketers can go with this.

In actual fact, it isn’t difficult to start detecting human emotions using technology and Nikon predicts, in a report, that there will be thousands of devices doing just that in the near future. Already, the Apple Watch can measure heart rate on the go quite accurately and this can be used as a crude measure of the wearer’s state of mind. Cameras, which are increasingly being embedded everywhere, could be used to keep measuring moods yielding “emotional data” that can then be put to use.

Delivering Better Services
It stands to reason that emotional data be used to improve quality of life. And that’s possible when moods and reactions are measured in response to the use of products and services. If you wear a mood measuring bracelet, for example, and it’s able to keep tabs on your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and other physical parameters and correlates them with your emotional state, all that data can be channeled to say, your connected home. Building on that, you could approach your fridge only to be recommended some “comfort food” that typically makes you feel really good. Or, the data could tell your music system to pick from a playlist something that always lifts your spirits. Cars, like some of Mercedes’ models, already have technology that senses how the driver is feeling. Too much boredom or getting sleepy will see the car rerouting to the nearest coffee stop.

Feel better, work better
The measurement of mood interests companies because it’s then possible to study what makes an employee more or less productive and try to create conditions that make a person work better. Failing which, fire someone who’s moods don’t add up to an increase in revenue. As surveillance cameras take better footage and combine with software that can interpret thousands of expressions, the human workforce has had it.

Sometimes technology tracks emotional states purely to make a person feel better. Specially if there are mental health issues involved.

Venet Osmani at the Centre for Research and Telecommunication Experimentation for Networked Communities in Italy believes the job of spotting the mood swings typical of bipolar disorder can be detected by a smartphone. The accelerometer can measure activity level which is bound to decrease in depression and step up in an excited phase. He reported that the smartphone was able to detect mood changes with 97 per cent accuracy.

Psychiatrists in India think this is ridiculous and that the problem is not one of difficulty detecting mood changes but what to do about them. With bipolar disorder, for example, it is human beings around the sufferer who can detect far more subtle changes in mood and much earlier.

Privacy watchdogs may worry about who will know about a person’s emotions, but it seems people themselves are less bothered. It’s the age of “extimacy” not intimacy now and people have no problem “sharing” their states of mind. There is clothing that signals your moods. Sensoree has created a mood sweater which can communicate your mood to anyone who cares to look. Philips has similar concept clothing that changes colours based on how the wearer feels.

Another garment actually signals sexual interest and arousal. We can go to ridiculous lengths with emotion detecting technology, but there’s no stopping it because the next step is to have robots that can tell how people feel. Pepper, the famous robot, recognises facial expressions and body language enough to detect the emotion of a person and doesn’t hesitate to go up and start interacting, quite human-like, with someone. It’s very persistent and talkative, one time giving rise to such irritation in a man, that he attacked the robot and broke it to bits. Soon enough though, emotion detection will become a “natural” aspect of using technology.

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2015)