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Joy, sadness, anger: Amazon is developing a gadget that is supposed to recognize human feelings. Other companies also want to give technology “emotional intelligence”.

There have been times when grown-up people looked forward to the announcement of new technology as they used to at Christmas. Nowadays, one encounters this almost childlike enthusiasm less and less often. In times of technical surveillance, the descriptions of upcoming products almost sound like a threat. The most recent one comes from Amazon. There, a gadget is being developed that is supposed to be able to recognize human emotions.

According to internal documents the gadget should be worn on the wrist. Microphones will be connected to a software program which will evaluate the emotional state of the wearer. The technology should help to interact “more effectively” with fellow human beings – whatever is meant by this in Amazon’s reading. A distinction is made between “joy, anger, sadness, fear, boredom” and half a dozen other sensations. The patent application filed last year shows that Amazon could adapt its product recommendations to the information provided by “Dylan”. Those who feel pleasure might get an offer for pop music or a trampoline. In case of worry or grief, over-the-counter mood enhancers would probably be at the top of the list.

Understanding users

It is still unclear how far the project with the code name “Dylan” has already progressed or whether it will ever be launched. At Amazon the developers are given a lot of freedom for thought games. Every idea that doesn’t immediately fizzle out again seems to be filed for a patent. In the last few years, sketches for autonomous swarms of drones, tunnel-based delivery systems or underwater logistics centers have been on the list. The submissions are somewhere between normal Silicon Valley hybris and 007 super villain level.

The fact that computers decode people’s feelings through video recordings or voice recordings is a popular motif in science fiction. In reality, the field is called affective computing and seems to consist of equal parts of psychology, artificial intelligence and voodoo.

Up to now, the discipline has mainly been the playing field of ambitious start-ups and not of tech monopolists. In the meantime, however, entrepreneurs and investors are hoping for a billion-dollar business. One company that has made a name for itself in recent years is Affectiva. It recently announced the development of a new software called Human Perception AI. The developers claim that the technology will be given “emotional intelligence”.

This is not just about basic conditions like fear or anger, but more complex sensations. For this purpose, facial expressions are analyzed in addition to speech. The responsible PR departments boldly manage to present this as an act of humanization: To be even more useful, technology must be able to understand its users on a deep human level. The ethical questions that arise in this context will be dealt with at a later date.

In contrast to Amazon, Affectiva is not just aimed at making disdainful consumer decisions. but rather the total decoding of human feeling. Through the omnipresence of appropriate sensors, a smartphone could recognize whether the user is really concentrating – just as cars already monitor their drivers and warn them when they are tired. In the likely event that the vehicle is an autonomous vehicle in the future, the vehicle would also know whether its occupants were getting sick because of their driving style.