Monday, January 26, 2015


There's a rather alarming article in Jan. 19, 2015 issue of "The New Yorker": Raffi Khatchadourian, "We Know How You Feel," p. 50-59.

The subject matter is how scientists are learning to create computers that read human emotions by studying facial expressions:

"Our faces are organs of emotional communication; by some estimates, we transmit more data with our expressions than with what we say, and a few pioneers dedicated to decoding this information have made tremendous progress. Perhaps the most successful is an Egyptian scientist living near Boston, Rana el Kaliouby. Her company, Affectiva, formed in 2009, has been ranked by the business press as one of the country's fastest-growing startups. . . "(50).

The software, Affdex, looks at everything when it examines a human face: "the shifting texture of skin, the distribution of wrinkles around an eye, or the furrow of a brow. . . The algorithm identifies an emotional expression by comparing it with countless others that it has previously analyzed" (52).

Affectiva builds on models created by a research psychologist, Paul Ekman, "who, beginning in the sixties, built a convincing body of evidence that there are at least six universal human emotions, expressed by everyone's face identically, regardless of gender, age, or cultural upbringing [my emphasis, URB]. Ekman compiled a Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which is widely used, e.g., by academics and police officers.

Computers now "outperform people in distinguishing social smiles from those triggered by spontaneous joy, and in differentiating between faked pain and genuine pain" (52).

Kaliouby and her colleague Rosalind Picard created the new field in computer science called "affective computing." In the early stages of their work their intentions were highly altruistic. Kaliouby, for example, worked on a project to help autistic patients better interpret human expressions. Her Mind Reader was a program that she hoped would "construct an 'emotional hearing aid' for people with autism. The wearer would carry a small computer, and earpiece, and a camera, to scan people's expressions. In gentle tones, the computer would indicate appropriate behavior: keep talking, or shift topics" (54).

But when the corporate world and the government found out about Mind Reader they swarmed around its inventors with inquiries. "Pepsi was curious if it could use the software to gauge consumer preferences. Bank of America was interested in testing it in A.T.M.s. Toyota wanted to see if it could better understand driver behavior" (56). And so on. And so on. You can bet that the CIA and NSA perked up their ears and antennas. FOX wanted to test all its pilot shows with this software; advertisers all and sundry were fascinated with the idea of using computer software to study a face, and to predict whether that face liked their product. Soon the good intentions and the altruistic impulses of the founder of this software were being stretched out into areas far from altruistic.

Affdex has now been so highly refined that it can "read the nuances of smiles better than most people can" (56). Now there are new projects to upgrade "the detection of furrowed eyebrows." Affdex ran tests on 80,000 brow furrows. Obviously, this computer program now knows infinitely more about brow furrows than anyone on earth.

So what next? The possibilities are rife. Emotion-sensing vending machines and A.T.M.s that would understand when users are in a relaxed mood and susceptible to advertising. Anheuser-Busch has designed a responsive beer bottle, because sports fans at games "wishing to use their beverage containers to express emotions are limited to, for example, raising a bottle to express solidarity with a team" (58).

Next, you suppose, will come the better, new and improved beer bottle with a built-in computer, to study your teeth for cavities and your brain for openings: places where a bit of advertising can intrude. Apple has recently come up with the iWatch, "which can measure heart rate and physical activity, and link these data to your location. The new products complement another line of Apple's research: mood-targeted advertising. . . With the new watch, they are going to know everything about you" (59).

Samsung is quoted as saying, "If we know the emotion of each user we can provide more personalized services" (59). This reminds me of the incessant message over the phone: "your call is being recorded to better serve you," which means, "to better serve us."

Pretty scary stuff, but, you may ask, what does this have to do with Russians or Russian literature? Well, quite a bit, as it so turns out. Take a look at this picture of a Russian face:

[from Barbara Monahan, A Dictionary of Russian Gesture (Hermitage Publications, 1983), p. 27.]

In describing this gesture, Monahan (p.26) cites Edmond Wilson's book, A Window on Russia, and Wilson mentions Anna Karenina's habitual gesture of narrowing her eyes in times of stress. Monahan writes that this gesture indicates, among other things, "I'm concentrating. I'm thinking what I should do next."

The other things (I think) are more important. The gesture, which probably originally came out of a fear of the evil eye, indicates apprehension. The person slitting his/her eyes is engaging in a defensive act, keeping intruding eyes out.

People other than Russians may also use this gesture, but, for example, I think that far fewer Americans do this slit-eyed squint than Russians do (with the possible exception of Clint Eastwood). It comes, largely, out of a thousand years of Russian paranoia.

Russians feel the constant need to protect themselves from hostile eyes. Russian simply do not trust very many people. They wear on their faces a habitual look of sour non-commitment, what Americans see as a frown. It's just not safe to open yourself up too much. In fact, Russians are firmly set against what they call "the American smile," which they consider something superfluous and frivolous. A Russian friend of mine, who has lived in the U.S. for years, walks around with his Russian look on his face, and Americans are constantly asking him, "Sergei, what's wrong?"

So what I'm wondering is this: could the Affdex computer software get anywhere looking at Russian faces? Could it look, say, at Vladimir Putin's face and figure out what he's feeling? Given that Putin wears not only the habitual Russian face mask, but also, on top of that, he wears the mask of the professional spook. So they say, he even sleeps with his spook mask on.

I don't know, but I'm guessing that the Affdex program would scream out for help if it had to deal with the Russian slit-eyed squint. What a shame for all the American mind-reading companies who would like to read Russian minds and make big money in the Russian market!

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