Sorry Dell, but I don't want any of your computers to try and read my mood

Even if our emotions could be could be easily reduced to ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ - what then?

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Would your life improve if your computer knew when you were having a bad day? Dell has announced that it’s working on software that could be incorporated into a headset and be able to tell if its wearer is happy or sad, frustrated or bored.

This looks at first sight like a really good idea – like having a husband that actually works. The aim is not, presumably, to inform us about our own emotional states (I can usually tell if I’d happy or sad, though, confusingly, quite often I am both happy and sad) but to convey this information to other people or to computers that will, with their new-found empathy, start doing the job of other people and suggest a drink or a nice sit down.

Sure enough, Dell’s head of research and development suggests that computer programmes could in future respond to human moods. The technology could, for example, gauge when someone playing a computer game is bored, and respond by ratcheting up the tension. (This is of course, what the porn industry does, without the need for mood-sensors: gets people into a state of anticipation and then requires them to pay for the next bit.)

This suggestion presupposes that boredom is a bad thing, which is not necessarily true. Boredom serves a tremendously useful function in getting people (especially, if you are a parent, people playing computer games) to move onto something else. An increasing body of academic research suggests boredom is really important for imagination and creativity and we don’t get enough of it.

These days, hardly anyone stares in a bored, contemplative fashion out of the window: we’re all focused on our mobiles, worried about missing something on twitter or Instagram. A genuinely useful mood sensor would point out that this is making us anxious and fretful and it’s pointless and we should just put the technology down. It’s unlikely, though, that this is what they have in mind for it. 

 

Microsoft, which is experimenting with a similar mood-sensing product, called Moodscope, has produced an academic paper in which it suggests that parents could use the technology to identify when, say, their son was unhappy, and call to cheer him up. The authors of this paper cannot ever have had sons. Any of my sons would be horrified at the idea I might know about their interior states, still less telephone them and start saying embarrassing things.

Innumerable novels and a great many films have been built on the discrepancy between what people say to each other and what they really feel; between their public faces and their private thoughts. Office life would fall apart if everyone knew the extent to which their polite, charming and helpful colleagues were actually seething with resentment, boredom and fury. 

Tech people tend to think of sharing as an invariably good thing, which (see office, above) it isn’t. A lot of sharing on the web - anti-sexism campaigns and insightful commentary spring to mind - is brilliant; but sharing via social media depends on performance.

We are all broadcasters now, all choosing what to project – which also, inevitably, entails choosing what to keep private. And, other than for occasional effect, what we mostly protect is our emotional states – not least because they are just too complicated, too irrational and too hopelessly inarticulate to share.

Even if our moods could be easily conveyed, could be reduced to ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ - what then? What is my computer, or indeed, my boss, going to do about the fact that I’m in a bad mood because it’s raining? That I’m on a short fuse because I was caught in a traffic jam? On current performance, my boss is going to look embarrassed; and my computer is going to send me some irritating ad based on something I once looked at in the course of my work. It has been incontinence pads a lot recently. Give me a semi-functional husband any day.

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