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How Darwinism played a role in misreading emotions


Efforts to enable machines to read our emotions are hitting a roadblock and, oddly enough, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), founder of popular evolution theory, plays a role in getting it wrong:

The world is being flooded with technology designed to monitor our emotions. Amazon’s Alexa is one of many virtual assistants that detect tone and timbre of voice in order to better understand commands. CCTV cameras can track faces through public space, and supposedly detect criminals before they commit crimes. Autonomous cars will one day be able to spot when drivers get road rage, and take control of the wheel.

But there’s a problem. While the technology is cutting-edge, it’s using an outdated scientific concept stating that all humans, everywhere, experience six basic emotions, and that we each express those emotions in the same way. By building a world filled with gadgets and surveillance systems that take this model as gospel, this obsolete view of emotion could end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a vast range of human expressions around the world is forced into a narrow set of definable, machine-readable boxes. Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere, “Silicon Valley thinks everyone feels the same six emotions” at Quartz

How did we decide that there were only six emotions? The theatre would be impoverished and the fiction rack destitute if…

Psychologist Paul Ekman, billed at his website as “The world’s deception detection expert, co-discoverer of micro expressions and the inspiration behind the hit series, Lie to Me,” originated the idea.” His interest in psychology began with a tragedy: His mother committed suicide when he was 14.

The conventional view at the time, represented by, for example, Margaret Mead (1901–1978), was that emotions are multifarious and fluid. But Ekman was drawn to Darwin’s idea that we have evolved universal emotions from an animal past. In the 1960s, he did research in New Guinea among the Fore people who had allegedly had little contact with Europeans and, we are told, “this work strongly suggested that emotional facial expressions are biologically determined, as Darwin had predicted.” Emotions even machine could read.

In 1955, Firth-Godbehere tells us, Mead regarded Darwin’s claims, advanced in the 1872 essay to which she wrote a foreword, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” as “a historical curiosity.” But in 1998, Ekman was the one to write the foreword and he defended them, leading a consensus.

“Six emotions” thinking found its way into popular culture, in part via Lie to Me (2009–2011), where the curiously named “Cal Lightman”, played by Tim Roth, is “the world’s leading deception expert who studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to expose the truth behind the lies.”

Then something went wrong. More.

Also at Mind Matters Today:

Is the future of jobs over? Should people be paid to let machines do the work? Recently, there have been short-term limited experiments with a Universal Basic Income but it’s hard to evaluate a transformative social policy with such limited and cherry-picked data. And, says Richards, paying people not to work would simply slow their move into the job markets of the digital age.

Coconuts go high tech. Plastics from coconut waste offer economic benefit to poor farmers from crop waste. One of Walter Bradley’s longstanding goals as an engineer and materials scientist has been to harness advanced materials technology to help the world’s poor, most of whom are poor farmers.

The true cost of “free” social media It’s free but… are we? George Gilder points a way forward. He thinks that expected massive increases in computing power will enable blockchain technologies that allow users to safely bypass the global data monopoly that Google and similar firms represent.


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