Declining public trust in innovation: where genius may not be enough

Shortly after this Kat published his most recent post, “Declining public trust in innovation: why we should be worried”, he came across a recent article in The New Yorker magazine entitled “We Know How You Feel.” The piece dealt with the advances in the ability of a computer to read human emotions via facial expressions (what the article called “emotionally responsive machines”). Unintentionally, however, it provides an excellent example of how public sentiment might turn ambivalent in the face of world-beating innovation. The focus of the article is the work of Dr Rana el Kaliouby, a brilliant Egyptian computer scientist who did graduate work at Cambridge, migrated to the M.I.T. Media Lab and went from there to helping establish a high-flying Boston-area start-up called Affectiva.

It is the trajectory from Cambridge to Affectiva that is of particular interest. While at Cambridge, Dr Kaliouby had become involved with facial recognition technology in the context of the university’s Autism Research Centre. Moving to M.I.T., she first joined forces with Professor Rosalind Picard to pursue her work further in the service of autistic children and other forms of children’s behaviour disabilities. The technology came to the attention of a VP at Fox, who was interested in using it “to test all our pilot shows.” In light of this, the Media Lab Director advised that “[t]he solution is to spin out.” The article then continues:
“[Dr] Kaliouby was reluctant to leave academia. ‘We really wanted to focus on the do-good applications of the technology’, she said. But [the Director] argued that the marketplace would make the technology more robust and flexible: a device that could work for FOX could also better assist the autistic. It was possible, he said, to build a company with a ‘dual bottom line’—one that not only did well but also changed people’s lives.”
What has happened since then is that the company has apparently become a world leader in the use of affective computing to enable companies to better market their goods and services (and Dr Kaliouby has been called a “rock star”). The technology augurs a time when such emotionally responsive machines will enable its users to know more about us through our facial expressions than we can imagine, often without our knowledge. The ability to target advertisements and products better is the ultimate prize. As for the dual bottom line, the article concludes:

Kaliouby doesn’t see herself returning to autism work, but she has not relinquished the idea of a dual bottom line. "I do believe that if we have information about your emotional experiences we can help you to be in a more positive mood and influence your wellness’, she said.
Perhaps. What is the case for now, however, is better market research—“one”; research on autism, “zero”.
Don’t get this Kat wrong. He wishes Dr Kaliouby and her company every success. It is the way of innovation, laced with realizing the American dream. And yet, the story of Affectiva is a cautionary tale, supporting the concern expressed in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Affectiva’s success, and that of other companies developing world-beating technology, may have the paradoxical effect of chiselling away at public support for the entire innovation enterprise. For what happens when public sentiment sours on a grand initiative, Kat readers need only consider the recent Greek elections.
Declining public trust in innovation: where genius may not be enough Declining public trust in innovation: where genius may not be enough Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, February 04, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. Being the "Ugly American," the reference to the recent Greek elections and the relation to patent law is lost on me.

  2. This Kat reader is not sure about the meaning of the reference to the Greek election.

  3. This has nothing to do with trust or any cautionary tale. An individual started out with an idea believing it may of benefit to those with autism and then found it could make her rich instead. There is nothing to stop her from continuing with research in autism, but she has chosen not to. The only discussion would be about greed winning out over humanity. However, I do not criticize her for her free choice. How many lawyers who read this work for free to protect the fruits of humanitarian research?

    I suspect the 'grand initiative' referred to is the Euro. A very bad idea, which would have had more success had the rules that known to be required to make it work not been broken to get countries to join.

    Still, Germany will think of another way to obtain complete control over Europe.

  4. p.s. The Media Lab Director was right. Advancements in the technology of benefit for autism was more likely from a more widely available commercial product.


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