STATE of Emotion

Emotions are a fundamental source of our most personal experiences in the world and motivations to act, as well as a central element of interaction with others. They have been considered the essence of what it means to be human, and what it means to be you.
Throughout most of the history of science, emotions have eluded empirical study as too intangible and too subjective — but during the last decades, groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in areas such as experimental psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology have created a new momentum for research and experimentation related to the study and engagement with emotions, leading to the development of technologies and applications able to measure, interpret and simulate emotions in various ways and for a vast range of purposes:

Based on many years of experimentation and research in the field of affective neuroscience — studying the neural mechanisms of emotions — methods for biometric measurement of emotions have become astonishingly precise and nuanced, resulting in first applications able to not only tap into but also manipulate human emotions. Initially developed to cure psychological conditions such as autism or depression, the increasing amount of understanding and possibilities regarding targeted control and regulation of emotional states has quickly led to endeavors to optimize cognitive and emotional stability, performance and abilities through both pharmaceutical but also technical means, such as Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) oder Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). On the other hand, the field of “affective computing” — based on the fundamental research and work done by MIT media lab faculty’s scientist Rosalind Picard — has introduced methods and technologies for “affective surveillance” where through the study of of faces as an interface of affect, various facial recognition software applications have been developed to detect and read emotions in the human counterpart. Getting access to our minds and innermost feelings through the gateway of our facial expressions, the research on Artificial Intelligence has been able to advance its research and attempts to create empathic — or rather, empathically acting — computer systems, turning formerly soulless machines into what to us seem caring and sensitive companions.

    By way of such biometric measurements and interpretation, computer systems are becoming increasingly capable of reading and also anticipating how and why we act like we do, thereby opening up possibilities of influence and interference with people’s decision making processes. The quality and type of data that can be collected and gathered through such applications and softwares has quickly created a whole new market for apps, devices and applications that turn the newly accessible knowledge into streams of money.

    This new understanding of how and why we feel like we do, how this knowledge can be used and applied back onto us is progressively entering into our private surroundings and affecting our behavior, decision making and life on various levels.  What are the cultural, social and political implications of these developments? In the age of “big data”, can gathering affective data on large populations actually be used to improve the quality of life, or does it only become another tool for discrimination, surveillance and social isolation? What are and can be scenarios in which these new possibilities will be used and implemented for the good of people? Will perhaps the targeted manipulation and leveling of emotional states even be necessary to guarantee the continued existence of a human species, in a future marked by overpopulation and environmental disasters? And how can we prepare ourselves for the encounter with a new generation of robots, challenging us in different ways to deal with seemingly emotional companions that behave uncannily close to humans and seem to understand us better than we do ourselves?



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