It used to be that a mark of a good friend was one who could tell how you were feeling. If you seemed despondent, they could make you laugh, and they knew how to make the best of a good mood.
Now, it seems, even the skill of mood detection can be outsourced to our ever-present cell phones.
Scientists from Rice University, working with Microsoft Research, are developing a way for cell phones to mine your usage data — how many phone calls you make, which apps you use and how often — to determine your mood. The technology is still in the R&D stage, but they’re already boasting a 93 percent accuracy rate in mood-detection. That’s pretty high for a piece of metal, glass and electricity that can’t actually care.
It brings to mind the next question: what could Microsoft Research possible do with this technology?
One would hope that no one needs a data-mining cell phone app to detect how they’re feeling. And given all the talk about the NSA spying on its own population, it may be tempting to let the mind race to nefarious applications, like thought policing. But the answer — as is often the case with technology and social media — is much more mundane and commercial.
Much of the talk surrounding this technology has centered on how to monetize your emotional information. Possible uses being bandied about are music apps using emotional cues to suggest songs, or gaming. According to an article in Fast Company, automated mood sensing could be “very powerful” because games could use the information to introduce new elements based on how the gamer is feeling. We know that gaming is a big money venture, but describing the ability of a video game to hand the player a digital sword or a wet birthday cake depending on his or her mood as “powerful” seems a bit of a stretch.
Technology as a whole has been powerful. Certain technologies have made many medical and educational advances possible, to start. But in the realm of feeling, the greatest thing that social media has done is to codify our most trivial emotions. Suddenly there’s a place on Instagram for any above average meal, or a way to express an emotion so small that can it can be easily satisfied by a Facebook “Like.”
For emotions with any real depth, social media and technology have done little more than cheapen them. Relationships, platonic and romantic, used to take a great deal of care, social skill and emotional investment. The resulting payoff was much greater: loves that last a lifetime, friendships that can’t be broken with the click of an un-friend button.
Teaching a cell phone to detect a person’s emotions is certainly novel, but I can’t help but feel that these are just small ideas wrapped up in the glitz of new technology. And even at their best, these ideas are no substitute for the real thing. To get the experience of having your mood accurately assessed and the information used productively, go make a friend instead.