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Interview: Rosalind Picard, academic, inventor

17 March 2023

‘The things that most alleviate human misery are not technological, although technology can help’

A Ryan

I’m the Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I lead a research lab, working with postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates, helping them learn to conduct research. I also teach, give talks about our work, and spend a lot of time learning.

I founded the Affective Computing Research Group when I first started trying to build computers that could have emotional intelligence. While computers do not feel, think, or have conscious experience like people do, they can still be programmed to behave in more emotionally intelligent ways. Note that “computer” today means anything with computation — which includes robots, smartphones, laptops, voice assistants, driving assistants, and more.

The forms of emotional intelligence that are needed will vary a lot with the form of computer and the contexts or cases in which it is used. For example, if you are upset at something that a voice assistant says in a customer-service context, and you express irritation to it, then it should not sound happy about your misfortune when it subsequently responds to you.

I set up Affectiva, now a part of Smart Eye AB, originally to provide technology to process and help label human facial expressions, such as “her face looks confused” or “his face looks interested.” Of course, the software doesn’t know what you really feel inside, but neither does another person truly know this. It aims to infer what a person might infer, given how you appear outwardly.

I’m an engineer who also understands the importance and complexity of human consciousness, and someone who is interested in consciousness and designs machines and robots.

I’m interested in consciousness. I don’t know what you mean by “make up for deficiencies in human consciousness”. We build technology both to help expand human abilities and to better understand how we function.

The MIT Media Lab has hugely inspired, and continues to greatly inspire, this “Don’t be limited by what you were taught, or by one discipline” approach.

I was born to a 17-year-old MIT student, who placed me for adoption. I grew up with an amazing set of parents and a brother, travelling around the world, living in California, Florida, Iceland, Georgia, Panama, France, New Jersey, and now back to Boston.

Alfred Nobel died in 1896; so there is no Nobel Prize in computer science; but the people of Lombardy in Italy put together a Lombardy Research Prize in Computer Science with one million euros attached, and I was stunned one morning this fall when my phone rang telling me that I had been named the prizewinner.

No, my colleagues weren’t always very supportive of my approach. Several of them thought I was making a huge mistake to start to work on emotion, and they told me so. Back then, emotion was seen primarily as something irrational that impeded intelligence. I overheard one male colleague saying to another: “Can you believe what she’s doing? She used to do respectable work.”

About five years later, I found myself suppressing a smile when that same person came up to me, said he had started working on affective computing, too, and wanted to know if I could share some of my data with him to help his work.

Today, most researchers who look at the facts and the data can now see that emotion is extremely important.

I’m listed as an inventor on over 100 patents. People are very different; so it is hard to say what will impact whom, or how soon, or even how, my work will affect your life.

An invention that I know is already impacting the lives of many families is one that I tell the story of in a TED talk. [It is a smartwatch with a wrist-sensor that uses AI to detect and analyse the conditions leading to a SUDEP — Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy — and alerts a parent, carer, or friend near by to take preventative action.] The talk was presented late one night at a TEDx event in Boston, and TED moved it to their home page.

The things that most alleviate human misery are not technological, although technology can help. The solutions almost always require something greater than technology.

Polarisation excites emotions, and press and media in the US tend to promote polarisation because it increases clicks, advertising, and funding. This produces a problem in many areas, and not just intellectual debates about origins and Darwinism. Very few people get exposed to, or get supported in trying to understand, the complex issues in the middle, where there is likely to be a lot more common ground.

What makes me angry most is injustice, especially when it hurts people’s health and opportunities.

Feeling the love of God is what makes me happiest.

I love the sound of silence.

I’m hopeful for the future, despite so many horrible and evil things in this world. My hope is in the evidence supporting that the God revealed in the Bible exists, chose to enter into suffering, and has emphasised truth and grace. I don’t think we deserve these gifts, and yet they are given freely to us.

I most often pray for wisdom and guidance in what I do and don’t do.

If I were to be locked in a place of worship for a few hours and could choose anyone as a companion, I’d choose Mary. I’m curious to hear about her experiences with Jesus.

Professor Rosalind Picard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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