Pamela Pavliscak on emotional technology in the age of coronanxiety

Lockdown and social distancing are playing havoc with our emotions. Can emotional technology help us navigate stormy pandemic seas, and lay the course to a new normal? Here's what Pamela Pavliscak told the 'What's NEXT' audience.

Pamela Pavliscak studies the future of feelings. Obsessed by our conflicted emotional relationship with technology, her work is part deep dive research, part data science, part design. As a researcher, she creates experiments that challenge us to see technology—and ourselves—in new ways. Whether documenting new internet emotions or asking people to confront their digital alter egos, Pamela’s research is aimed at understanding how technology can help us be human.

In our fourth episode of What’s NEXT, she explored the role of emotional technology in the age of social distancing, and how it might help us navigate the emerging new normal as lockdown eases.

The pandemic is a time of high anxiety. We live in an era of coronaxiety, suggested Pamela Pavliscak, naming an emotion many of us have been contending with for the last three months. We are concerned for our health, and the health of our loved ones. We’re grieving for things that haven’t happened yet, and which may now never happen. Lockdown shifts our emotional relationship with time.

It has also torn us away from many of our loved ones physically, and for many, the oxytocin triggered by the sensation of human-to-human touch is at an all time low. The pandemic has thrown everything up in the air, and that’s bound to have an impact on our emotions.

Can technology aid us in this moment?

If we find screen-mediated emotional experience unfulfilling, asked Pavliscak, can we use technology to restore some richness to them?

The era of big emotion

There’s two decades of work to draw from. Emotions have been of deep interest to the tech world for years. Researchers and companies have been working on systems to detect emotion since the turn of the century, initially to assist children who had problems reading emotions – often those on the autistic spectrum. All of the big tech companies have been working on it in recent years, even in simple ways like Apple’s Memoji. But surprisingly little of this tech has reached implementation.

And some of the experiments have been unsettling – like Facebook’s attempts to identify teenagers with depression.

Another core challenge is that we, as humans, use multiple different signals to read emotion. There’s a lot of complexity to emotions – and the tech can only get a teeny, tiny bit of it, because most systems use only one of the multiple signals humans use to read emotions. Emotional technology cannot detect complexity in emotion without that ability to read multiple signals, especially if we’re capable and used to faking those signals.

Indeed, the mass adoption of masks in response to the pandemic challenges one basic signal: face recognition that depends on the mouth. But AI teams are working on that already.

Just to add complexity, there’s no clear agreement on what emotions actually are, and what their meaning is. Some people adopt an evolutionary position, that posits that emotions are biologically rooted, culturally universal and discrete. And then there are those who argue that they are essentially social constructs, shaped by cultural values and language – open systems, if you like.

New uses for existing emotional technology

Can we imagine ways that the technology we have already could guide us through this time? Pavliscak showed us some existing products that could have a role in addressing the challenges:

  • Perhaps IBM needs to revisit the cognitive dress, to allow richer communication through social distancing.
  • Missing kisses from loved ones? Kissenger is a kiss messenger.
  • For the more adventurous, Call Me Choke Me was a concept for remote BDSM. While face-to-face play remains an infection risk, emotional sex tech could find a new lease of life.
  • The Hug Shirt has been around for a while. It transmits a hug you give yourself to someone else.
  • Empathic robots could keep people company in places where it’s dangerous for humans to spend too much time – like Covid-19 intensive care wards.

Could we, in fact, counter Zoom Gloom with a realtime display of the emotions people are feeling, giving a richer experience to endless online meetings?

Living with emotional machinery

If we do go down this path, she cautioned, we really need to give thought as to how we can live harmoniously with this kind of technology. Can we expand our emotional world with tech, rather than contracting it or simplifying it to suit the algorithms? “Can we build tech that’s humble and supportive, rather than controlling?” she asked.

The possibilities are exciting, said Pavliscak – but there are dangers, too. How much access and control are we going to have over the data about our emotions itself? How much can we adapt the generic designs of systems to make them meaningful to us, personally?

Even pre-COVID, a lot of the startups in this space were moving towards cars and mental health, she suggested. The latter points one way forward on data privacy. The idea of using emotion detection tech to support a mental health professional – that could be compelling, according to Pavliscak. There are some privacy rules around that already, which make it feel more comfortable to other people.

This is a summary of an interview with Pamela Pavliscak, conduced by David Mattin and Monique van Dusseldorp during the NEXT Show on May 28th 2020. You can catch up with Pavliscak and her work on Twitter or on her site.