There’s a fantastic feature article in the New Yorker this week about the quest for software that can recognise human emotion. I like it for two reasons. Firstly, because I’m genuinely interested in different forms of ‘input’ to technology, whether that’s gestures, voice recognition or facial expressions. But secondly because it’s a great story of a startup struggling with the issues surrounding the potential social impact of the technology they’re developing.
The story is hooked on the two researchers turned founders who initially see the potential of the technology to help people with autism understand the emotions of people they’re talking to. But when they provided their software for trial by the MIT Media Lab’s corporate partners, it became obvious that they had other ideas — generally about how to sell more stuff through advertising.
With a new CEO brought in one of the founders was ‘forced out’ and the company is now essentially a market research tool, and a very lucrative one. As the article says of the remaining founder:
“Kaliouby doesn’t see herself returning to autism work, but she has not relinquished the idea of a dual bottom line. “I do believe that if we have information about your emotional experiences we can help you be in a more positive mood and influence your wellness,” she said.”
That sounds like a bit of a fudge to me — although I do hope they return to the medical possibilities. We do a lot of work with BGV teams helping them understand these dilemmas ahead of time, especially before they choose potential investors who I think are one of the biggest influences on this kind of future ethical choices.