Tom Dorresteijn describes a future where computers know us better than we know ourselves
Empathetic technology is the next big thing. And basically, it boils down to technology that ‘reads’ your emotional state and well-being but also responds to it, maybe even takes care of you. It opens a new dimension in the relationship between people and technology. You could say technology will become emotionally sensitive and emotionally involved. For example: before you are even aware of it yourself, your future smart house could inform you that you are showing symptoms of depression and suggest how to avoid it. Or it might advise you to see a doctor because you have a heart problem that’s evolving. Science fiction? Well, science for sure, but fiction: no.
During SXSW, Poppy Crum - chief scientist of Dolby Laboratories and adjunct professor at Stanford University - shared interesting insights about the potential of empathetic technology. Currently, sensors and algorithms are increasingly capable of reading how we are doing. A computer can detect the slightest facial expressions. It can tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one. Your eyes can’t fool technology either. Increasingly, it is possible to see how your brain and body are doing via your eyes. The heat pattern of your body and skin can tell you the level of stress you are presently experiencing. And based on your speech, computers can predict if you will suffer from psychosis, schizophrenia, Alzheimers/dementia, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder and diabetes. Changes in your voice can reveal signs of Alzheimer up to ten years before the actual clinical diagnosis. The chemical composition of your breath gives away your feelings because when you breath there is a dynamic mixture of acetone, isoprene and carbon dioxide, that changes when your heartbeat goes up and your muscles tense. So, suspense, fear, joy and many other emotions can be visible just by your breathing. It’s all things the human eye would never see.
In touch with emotions
It leads to an interesting paradox: the further empathetic technology will develop, the better we are able to be in touch with our own and others emotions and well-being. The deeper self comes to the surface. As human beings, we like to keep the way we feel inside and keep control of what we express to the outside world. Play cool, seduce, exaggerate other people will buy your bluff but technology will not.
Of course, everything is still in the beginning stages. But through a further evolution of sensors and machine learning, computers will become more precise in spotting behavioural cues and interpreting what they mean. Technology can listen, develop insights and make predictions about our mental and physical health.
Imagine you put some sensors in your house, maybe use the increasing number of IoT devices, and your home might be your best friend. Knowing you better, ‘seeing’ you better than anyone else. Technology doesn’t just analyse you during a specific moment, it can also examine the pattern in the data. Which reactions in your physical or emotional well-being happened during which situations? Through this analysis, it might be able to find out what causes or aggravates certain health problems. So if you go to the doctor, you can share a rich and relevant dossier with him or her, with a complete history of relevant events and symptoms. Getting to the right diagnosis will be faster and more precise than ever.
Scary or comforting?
Is this development scary or comforting? Well, basically it’s just what we do as human beings all the time. We constantly try to understand what is going on within ourselves and the people around us. And we too, have a set of sensors (eyes, mouth, nose, ears, touch) which combines with our intelligence to analyse the data derived from them.
But there is an important difference. As people, we depend on the technical quality of our sensors and our individual talent to make intelligent use of the data people provide us. The quality of our human hardware (body) and software (intelligence) is dependent on the genetic material of our parents. Computers don’t have that problem. They do not depend on the coincidence of who their parents are. They don’t have to be lucky to be talented. Their talent is the result of collective progress in R&D. This means each component will be of the highest possible quality in the end, beyond what we can do as mortal souls. And that’s why, even in emotional affairs, computers will ultimately be the better version of who we are as people.
Imagine what empathetic technology can do. Think about self-driving vehicles for example. It’s crucial that they see every object and track what movement they make. Empathetic technology can help to see people not just as moving objects, but based on expressions, body language and sound it can predict better what a person might do. Is someone scared and about to run across the street, does someone look absent-minded? It can further optimise safety.
Back to the question if this development is scary. Basically, there is no difference between empathetic technology and any other innovation throughout history or in the future. There will be proper use of the new technology and there will be misuse. Through clever anticipation and through trial and error, we will know how to find the right balance. As we’ve always done.