Open Dialogue

A.I. Can’t Detect Our Emotions

A conversation with the professor who just turned down a $60,000 grant from Google

Evan Selinger
OneZero
Published in
16 min readApr 6, 2021

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The graphic text “Open Dialogue” is framed around different sketches of human faces and emotions.
Photo illustration: Save As/Medium; Sources: Getty Images

Emotion A.I., affective computing, and artificial emotional intelligence are all fields creating technology to understand, respond to, measure, and simulate human emotions. Hope runs so high for these endeavors that the projected market value for emotional A.I. is $91.67 billion by 2024. A few examples are revealing: The automotive industry sees value in algorithms determining when drivers are distracted and drowsy. Companies see value in algorithms analyzing how customer support agents talk and computationally coaching them to be better speakers. And researchers see value in children with autism using A.I.-infused glasses to interpret the facial reactions conveyed by people around them.

Not everyone, however, is smiling about emotion-sensing A.I. Indeed, strong criticism is pervasive and high-profile controversies are grabbing headlines. For example, there’s been considerable pushback against companies unfairly using emotion detection and analysis software during interviews to determine a candidate’s “employability score.” The AI Now research institute even called for a ban on emotion-recognition technologies “in important decisions that impact people’s lives.”

I’m excited to talk about the promises and pitfalls of emotion-sensing A.I. with Luke Stark, assistant professor in the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. For many years, Luke has been studying this topic, sparked widespread discussion by comparing facial recognition technology to plutonium, and has an exciting new book coming out with MIT Press, Ordering Emotion: Histories of Computing and Human Feelings From Cybernetics to AI. In addition to being a renowned scholar who studies ethical issues, Luke prioritizes ethical action. He recently turned down a prestigious and lucrative Google research scholar award as a gesture of solidarity with former Google employees Timnit Gebru and Margret Mitchell.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Evan: The race is on to infuse all kinds of technologies with emotion-sensing A.I. I want your take on why it’s happening now and…

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Evan Selinger
OneZero
Writer for

Prof. Philosophy at RIT. Latest book: “Re-Engineering Humanity.” Bylines everywhere. http://eselinger.org/