I Stand Corrected: Devices That Know How We Really Feel

I Stand Corrected: Devices That Know How We Really Feel

In my post yesterday, I wrote that jobs requiring “people” skills would be highly valuable in the future, and, therefore, a good idea for my children to possess the skills needed for those jobs, since computers, smartphones and apps wouldn’t be able to understand human emotions.  However, I stand corrected today after reading Nick Bilton’s blog post for Bits (NY Times blog) titled “Devices That Know How We Really Feel.”

In his post, Bilton reminds readers that “we all get riled up by technology once in a while, with all those feeble batteries, endless updates, and spinning wheels of death.”  He asks us to “admit it:  sometimes you just want to punch your PC, or slap your smartphone, or knock your notebook.”  Then, he proceeds to inform us that technology is heading in the direction of our devices being able to “see it coming” and “pick up the tics and tells of our brewing anger — or, for that matter, any other emotion — and respond accordingly.”  He goes on to say:

Researchers and companies are already starting to employ sensors that try to read and respond to our feelings.

While this sort of technology is still in its early days, the possibilities seem many. One day, your PC might sense your frustration when a program keeps crashing and politely suggest that you take a walk while it contacts tech support. Or your smartphone could sense that passions — of one sort or another — are running high and, in response, disable messaging. Or your car might discern an early case of road rage and soften the car’s lighting and stiffen its steering.

Researchers have been trying to read emotions for years by monitoring facial expressions. But a new generation of sensors can judge emotion through people’s skin and breath.

Although Bilton spent a good chunk of his blog post explaining how this technology will change video gaming, driving and text messaging experiences, the part that intrigued me was that it could improve the lives of children.  He tells us “such technologies could also be used to help children learn by monitoring if they are bored or fidgety, and then enticing a teacher to change a lesson plan or assignment.”  I instantly thought of so many other ways it could make the experience of parenting, as well as of being parented, so much easier.  For example, if parents and caregivers could closely monitor their own emotions (e.g., when returning home to one’s child(ren) after a particularly frustrating day at the office, when a child is engaged in “terrible two’s”-type behavior and driving a parent/caregiver to the point of massive emotional eruption, etc.), adults could be able to scale back on an emotionally-laden response and/or put themselves in “Time Out.”  If children could learn to identify their feelings earlier in their lives by becoming self-aware sooner or if parents could “read” a child’s emotions better with the help of technology, there would likely be less child abuse or parenting by way of shaming or humiliating, which leaves children feeling sad.

When I think of all the students at a Level 5 High School in DC on my speech therapy caseload, who have significant behavior problems and emotional disturbance such that they must attend a “self-contained” high school (I was unable to treat the students today because the school was on lock-down because one of the students brought a gun to school this morning.), I think of how this technology could benefit adults and children.  These students, many of whom as babies and toddlers may not have had the most emotionally intelligent parent or caregiver to help them learn to understand and use emotions, would benefit from this kind of technology (For certain, some of the students have chemical imbalances or congenital conditions that has brought them to the school.).  So, too, would their teachers, who could better assess when a student’s behavior is escalating due to anger or frustration, and, therefore, manage their behaviors better and faster.

Bilton tells us that Dr. Gregory Kovacs, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University acknowledges that this type of technology might sound a bit scary since some may wonder if “we really want our computers, smartphones and cars to know if we’re happy or sad.”  Dr. Kovacs says this is the price we have to pay not only to improve technology but also to protect people.  He tells us “While some might see it as an invasion of privacy, I think operators of such vehicles should give up some privacy in exchange for the trust of human lives placed in their hands.”  And, then, Bilton writes “Hey, it beats smacking your PC.”

After almost hearing the sound of “smacking” in my head when he wrote the words, it was easy for me to see how the lives of children could be much improved with “emotion” technology.  Babies and toddlers, who have such limited language and modes of communication, need protecting from parents and caregivers who might not nurture them properly to be ready for the school setting and beyond.  Young children, who have such limited control of their emotions and language, and who can drive any parent or caregiver “nuts” in no time, deserve to be the beneficiaries of technology that could help them and the grown-ups who are “in charge” of them.  Although parents and caregivers might argue that it is an invasion of privacy, it could be encouraged as a tool that can improve lives, since negative experiences from birth to 3 years old too often have permanent and life-changing results in terms of a trust and attachment issues, personality issues, emotional disturbance, poor school performance, social problems, and so much more.

And, hey, it beats smacking your baby or toddler to get them to understand, express, and control their emotions and behaviors way too soon in their development than they are able, and, in fact, long before the grown-ups around them are even able to do it (Some adults never seem to get there!).


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