Imagine you are in a job interview. As you answer the recruiter’s questions, an artificial intelligence (AI) system scans your face, scoring you for nervousness, empathy and dependability. It may sound like science fiction, but these systems are increasingly used, often without people’s knowledge or consent.
Emotion recognition technology (ERT) is in fact a burgeoning multi-billion-dollar industry that aims to use AI to detect emotions from facial expressions. Yet the science behind emotion recognition systems is controversial: there are biases built into the systems.
Many companies use ERT to test customer reactions to their products, from cereal to video games. But it can also be used in situations with much higher stakes, such as in hiring, by airport security to flag faces as revealing deception or fear, in border control, in policing to identify “dangerous people” or in education to monitor students’ engagement with their homework.
Shaky scientific ground.
Fortunately, facial recognition technology is receiving public attention. The award-winning film Coded Bias, recently released on Netflix, documents the discovery that many facial recognition technologies do not accurately detect darker-skinned faces. And the research team managing ImageNet, one of the largest and most important datasets used to train facial recognition, was recently forced to blur 1.5 million images in response to privacy concerns.
Revelations about algorithmic bias and discriminatory datasets in facial recognition technology have led large technology companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and IBM, to halt sales. And the technology faces legal challenges regarding its use in policing in the UK. In the EU, a coalition of more than 40 civil society organisations have called for a ban on facial recognition technology entirely.
Like other forms of facial recognition, ERT raises questions about bias, privacy and mass surveillance. But ERT raises another concern: the science of emotion behind it is controversial. Most ERT is based on the theory of “basic emotions” which holds that emotions are biologically hard-wired and expressed in the same way by people everywhere.
This is increasingly being challenged, however. Research in anthropology shows that emotions are expressed differently across cultures and societies. In 2019, the Association for Psychological Science conducted a review of the evidence, concluding that there is no scientific support for the common assumption that a person’s emotional state can be readily inferred from their facial movements. In short, ERT is built on shaky scientific ground.