The Era of the Empath: Is it the End of the Poker Face?

“What happens when technology knows more about us than we do?”- Poppy Crum (Chief Neurophysiologist, Dolby Laboratories)

A lot of people bury their emotions, consistently hiding behind a poker face. However, the means to hide emotions is becoming “a thing of the past”. A computer can now detect our slimmest facial expression. They have the ability to differentiate between a real smile and a fake one. With time, our technology has become astonishingly brilliant. Aided by artificial intelligence, it already knows a lot about our internal state. Technology can tell us what is happening to us on the inside, things that even we don’t know about.

Though this entire thought can be scary, it isn’t vitally a bad thing.

Unlike animals, whose external responses reflect their inner state, humans believe that they have mental control over what they see, know and understand about their internal state. But they don’t. For example, when your brain has to focus harder, your autonomic nervous system drives your pupil to dilate, but when it doesn’t, it contracts. Therefore, when you hear too many sounds all at once, your pupils dilate, except when you listen to a single voice or noise, your pupils’ contract. Micro-expressions such as these give away a person’s poker face almost immediately.

Similarly, our bodies emanate our stories. The temperature changes inside our bodies are capable of emitting enough aura around us to be detected by sensors, to tell what we’re feeling. The unification of sensors paired with artificial intelligence in our vicinity is a lot more than just cameras and microphones tracking our exterior. The compelling structure of our thermal response gives away our change in stress, how much effort our brain is putting or whether we’re paying attention in a conversation. Tracking the honesty in a person’s thermal image might become a new part of how we fall in love or might completely change our perception of attraction to someone.

When it comes to listening, our technology can listen, develop insights and make predictions about our mental and physical health. It does this just by analysing the course of our speech and language, picked up by microphones. Language paired with A.I. can predict the probability of someone developing psychosis in the future like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, diabetes, etc. We know this because diabetes can alter the spectral colouration of our voice whereas changes in voice associated with Alzheimer’s can sometimes show up 10 years before the official clinical diagnosis. What we say and how we say it, tells a much deeper story than we know.

Similarly, we broadcast a chemical signature of our emotions. The chemical composition of our breath gives away our feelings. There is a mix of acetone, isoprene and carbon dioxide that changes when our heart speeds up and our muscles tense. Suspense, fear, joy and everything else show up as visually identifiable and reproducible moments.  

With all of this information and much more in the works of being identified and processed, we can confirm that it is indeed the end of the poker face era. We now have the opportunity to know more about each other than we ever did before. This provides us with a chance to connect and react with sentiments that are important to us as humans. Such experiences are important for us, both emotionally and socially.

It is now the era of the empath.

If we recognise the power of becoming technological empaths, we can bridge the gap between our emotional and cognitive struggle. This way, we get to change the way we tell our stories.

Imagine, a high school counsellor being able to realise that a cheerful, extrovert student has been having an extremely tough time, and reaching out can make a crucial difference. Or the authorities being able to tell if someone is having a mental health crisis or some other form of aggression, and be able to respond accordingly. Or an artist being able to know the direct emotional impact of his/her work. Empathetic technology will help us in so many unimaginable ways. More straightforward examples include hearing aids that could identify when the wearer is stressed and alter volumes. Or sensors that could make teachers alert when their students are struggling to understand a lesson.

Today’s technology knows what we’re feeling, giving us the opportunity of becoming more authentic and close to not just one another, but ourselves as well. Imagine a world where we care about each other, know more about each other and turn every experience into a richer one with the help of empathetic technology.

However, the idea of sharing our data and things we don’t want other people to know is quite nerve-racking. Any technology can be used for good or bad. Transparency and effective regulation about the use of our data are elements crucial to building the trust for any of this. But the advantages that empathetic technology can bring into our lives are worth solving the problems that make us feel nervous.

If we don’t, then there would be abounding opportunities and feelings that we’d miss upon.

“Innovation is change that unlocks new value.” – Jamie Notter, Author, When Millenials Take Over.

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