Will We Ban Tone Readers?

Humans communicate through many channels, including words, tone of voice, body position, facial expressions, etc. An “innocent” view is that these channels say similar compatible things; added channels mainly help us to say more things faster. A “hypocrisy” view, however, is that we say more socially-acceptable things via words, which can be more easily quoted, and via other channels we more say things we’d rather were not quoted, things often in conflict with our words.

These contrasting views suggest differing predictions about how we will react to new rapidly-improving techs for reading face/body/voice tones. Such techs watch and listen to the people around us, and tell us explicitly what their face/body/voice tones are saying. (Quotes from an article on such tech below.)

The innocent view suggests that we will welcome such techs as ways to help us read each other more clearly, helping especially those handicapped in reading such signals. The hypocrisy view, in contrast, suggests that we will resist and regulate such tech, to preserve familiar capacities for and habits of hypocrisy.

Many familiar regulations can be seen as attempts to preserve our habits of hypocrisy. For example, audio recording techs threatened to make our words reliably quotable, and our tone of voice as well, making it harder to say different things in private than we say in public. So we prohibited recording people’s voice without their permission. Similarly, new techs allowing cheap video recording of police activities threaten to expose deviations between how police often behave and how we say they are supposed to behave. So we are starting to ban them .(We may have police internal affairs groups report to police chiefs for similar reasons.)

Older examples are laws against blackmail and gambling, and our reluctance to enforce most long term promises. Blackmail threatens to punish and thus discourage activities we like, even though we denounce them, and challenges to bet show that we like to say things we don’t believe enough to support with a bet. Most long term promises are based on ideals we espouse but don’t actually want to act on.

I lean toward the hypocrisy view of human communication. Thus I suspect expression readers will be widely banned, especially recording or publishing their outputs, as an “invasion of privacy.” Though we may make sure the wording and/or enforcement of such laws is weak enough to allow their common use on ordinary people by firms and governments.

Anyone disagree? What odds will you give?

That article on expression reader tech:

The glasses … [have] a built-in camera linked to software that analyses … facial expressions. … But are we ready to broadcast feelings we might rather keep private? … During a face-to-face conversation, thousands of tiny indicators on a person’s face – arching the brow, puckering or parting the lips – add up to a series of non-verbal hints that augment our verbal communication. Blink, and you’ll miss them. … The average person only managed to interpret, correctly, 54 per cent of Baron-Cohen’s expressions on real, non-acted faces. … The software, by contrast, correctly identifies 64 per cent of the expressions. … They have been tuning their algorithms to pick up ever more subtle differences between expressions, such as smiles of delight and frustration. … Their algorithm does a better job of detecting the faint differences between those two smiles than people do. … It’s hard to fool the machine for long. As soon as I became engaged in the conversation, my concentration broke and my true feelings revealed themselves again. …

In addition to facial expressions, we radiate a panoply of involuntary “honest signals.” … They include body language such as gesture mirroring, and cues such as variations in the tone and pitch of the voice. … [Researchers] develop[ed] a small electronic badge that hangs around the neck. Its audio sensors record how aggressive the wearer is being, the pitch, volume and clip of their voice, and other factors. … In a 10-day experiment in 2008, Japanese and American college students were given the task of building a complex contraption while wearing the … “sociometric badge”. … being able to see their role in a group made people behave differently, and caused the group dynamics to become more even. …

[Researchers] showed that it was possible to measure heart rate without any surface contact with the body. They used software linked to an ordinary webcam to read information about heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature based on, among other things, colour changes in the subject’s face … It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that these sensors could combine to populate the ultimate emotion-reading device. How would the world change if we could all read each other’s social signals accurately … Picard is keen to stress that her technologies should not be used covertly, and that people should always be asked whether they wish to use them, rather than being forced to do so. Use of her gloves is by their very nature voluntary – you have to choose to wear them – but remote heart-rate monitoring does not require consent. Pentland takes a similar view on the need for privacy. Data generated by the sociometric badge data should only be visible to an employee, he says, and not be shared with an employer without the employee’s consent.

I got a taste of how it can feel to have my most private thoughts exposed when I slipped on one of Picard’s Q Sensor gloves to measure my skin conductance. A purple neoprene band pressed two electrodes into the palm of my hand, measuring subtle moisture changes on my skin when my stress levels changed. I watched a trace on Picard’s screen, reminiscent of a seismogram. “OK, now just think about anything that will make your heart beat faster,” she told me. I immediately suppressed my first intrusive thought because I found it just too embarrassing – and stared in horror as the scribble nevertheless exploded into a vertical spike. “Wow,” Picard said, her eyes widening. “What was that?” I felt my face go beetroot red.

Picard considered my reaction for a second. She didn’t need a headset to know that if I aired this particular thought it might make our conversation rather awkward. “Never mind,” she said, “I don’t want to know.”

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  • Tony

    Far more likely, people will just not trust the results of such tone-readers, and thereby preserve these channels as free for speculation and interpretation.

    • Really? I think people will trust tone-readers even more than is justified by their accuracy. Consider lie detectors.

      • Tony

        I’d argue that since people are fooled by lies in obvious ways all the time, they will put their trust in something that claims to detect one in a binary way. But when the vast majority of people see or hear someone say something, they get SOME active impression of a tone or subtext, even if it is incorrect. It is less clear, and thus more prone to rationalization.

  • As the full article mentions, the technologies could help autistic people. The enormous benefit that autistics would receive would make it politically challenging to ban the technologies because autistics will care far more about the regulation of these technologies than any other group.

    I believe that there is less than a 40% chance that autistics will be prevented from using tone reading technologies, although they along with everyone else might certainly be stopped from recording tones.

    • Hyena

      Autistics are a political non-entity, in large measure because autism, as a condition, assures this outcome.

      • Parents of autistic children will push for their kids to have the tone reading tech. Also, many high functioning autistics do have influence in the marketplace of ideas.

  • What, who is banning recording the police? The possibility to record the police is a wonderful democratic tool, the only purpose of banning that is the desire to misuse the police for totalitarian purposes.

  • Michael Kirkland

    We ban blackmail because it’s destabilizing. It’s better to have people who commit transgressions only among their close associates (like cheating on a spouse) than to have them commit larger transgressions to cover those up (such as stealing to pay a blackmailer).

    Note that while it’s illegal to solicit money not to report something, it’s not illegal to receive a reward for reporting a crime. You could look at it as prohibition on outbidding Crime Stoppers.

    • I have never before heard the argument that the problem with blackmail is that victims might steal to pay for it. There are lots of things people might steal to pay for.

      Robin, you should have linked to this on police/law and technology.

  • Buck Farmer

    What about voluntary users?

    I can imagine some cult, religion, or organization that chooses to wear these devices everywhere to display their honesty and to help them better know themselves.

    There’s signaling value to handicapping your ability to lie too. Will these honesty cultists be shunned or prohibited?

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  • Hyena

    We’ve outlawed blackmail because blackmail is broadly dangerous. The things people will do to maintain privacy are often disproportionate to the privacy preserved.

    The general problem with these technologies is that they’re simplistic. A lot of stuff surfaces to consciousness before being quashed. The problem is that our ultimate social orientation isn’t indicated by these pulses, only by the selection of what pulses rise to willful action. In fact, we put a lot of value on people being able to quash these sorts of things, so the relative value of these technologies is likely to be low. Though, like using credit scores on employees, uptake will be high along with the social costs.

    • Alrenous

      Blackmail does tend to provoke overreaction, but how do you know that’s the actual cause of the law? Was it common law, or Justinian law?

      • Hyena

        That’s more like an etymological argument. I don’t quite care what the historical justification would be and would be suspicious of it if told.

        I suspect, on basic game theoretic grounds, that we have laws against blackmail to prevent overreactions to it or the threat of it.

      • I think that blackmail is illegal because it allows for greater hypocrisy. If it were possible to profit from someone else’s hypocrisy then there would be an incentive to be less hypocritical. Since blackmail is only directed against those with assets, making blackmail illegal only protects the wealthy from one adverse effect of their hypocrisy.

    • A blackmailer profits from what is considered immoral, which is also seen as immoral. For example, when the state taxes prostitution, the people who are opposed to prostitution don’t say “Good, taxes will make prostitution less profitable”. They’re more likely to object, on the grounds that the state shouldn’t profit on an immoral activity.

      A blackmailer also uses subterfuge, threat, speaks ill of other people, and profits without contributing anything of value, which is usually seen as immoral.

      • By that argument police are immoral too, and we wouldn’t tolerate having them.

      • It’s not an argument; it’s a statement about how morals actually work.

        In philosophy, it’s often important to make a distinction between descriptive statements, which are about how things actually are, and prescriptive statements, which are about how things should be. When we discuss society’s reasons for adopting a certain moral, this distinction becomes vital. For example, there’s a huge difference between saying, “People believe stealing is immoral because they’re taught so by their elders”, and saying “Stealing is immoral because we’re taught so by our elders”.

        I think there are a number of reasons police are not considered immoral, including: they’re considered necessary, they’re mandated by authority, and their primary purpose is to stop crime, not make a quick buck.

        I don’t think society’s morals are determined by simple utility considerations (although they’re affected by them, especially long-term).

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  • rapscallion

    There seems to be a lot of variation among individuals in how well they can read others, which suggests that this type of knowledge doesn’t confer particularly large benefits (at least in an evolutionary adaptive sense). So I really don’t expect these types of devices to make that big a difference.

    If they do, we might all start wearing masks and speaking in monotone, which is about all you can do when dealing with the Dunyain:)

    • The reason there is a difference in the abilities of individuals to read others is because ignorance of what others are thinking can be advantageous at times. The most important trait an innovator must have is the ability to ignore people telling him/her that he/she is wrong. Of course that skill is only useful when you are actually right.

      Most people ignore being corrected when they are wrong. Some people actively hurt those who correct them, the old “kill the messenger” idea. That is how groupthink happens. When agreeing with those with more social status brings higher social status itself, then decisions can be no wiser than the wisdom of the person with the highest social status.

    • Most humans don’t have an IQ >120 — does that mean an IQ >120 doesn’t make much difference?

  • Eric H

    Has anyone looked at whether or not it is possible to game these devices? Learning to fake your fakery, even if only a small portion of the population could do it, would render them useless.

  • Someone from the other side

    I wonder whether these devices could be useful to train people to be better communicators by making them more aware of the bodylanguage and non verbal cues they exhibit – I know I always get the feedback to watch that, so it surely would be useful to have to some way to gauge myself on a continuous basis. Does anybody know if these technologies are available outside the specific researchers labs in some way?

  • MichaelG

    Widespread use of these devices would be a problem for depressed people, or others with psychological issues. You would be broadcasting your problems to everyone.

    And who would want to have a conversation with someone constantly sending out negative signals, no matter how hard you tried to relate to them?

  • I think you’re probably right… but I’m not sold on some of your analogies.

    There are reasons for trying to protect the private sphere beyond just the opportunity to engage in hypocrisy. The intuition is that we need a space in which to experiment with behaviours and ideas without being penalised and judged for them in a wider context.

    And I would argue that this is the primary motivation for protecting the kind of privacy threatened by voice recordings… it’s just that this comes at a cost – the possibility of hypocrisy.

    But I don’t know how you would establish either way which concept should sit at the centre of the narrative. Putting a desire for intimacy over hypocrisy at the centre just makes me feel warm and fuzzy I guess – and in general seems to do the explanatory job well enough in a lot of cases.

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  • Abelard Lindsey

    If you think devices like tone readers will be banned, then you need to work to ensure that they are not banned. Likewise, any legislation that banned video of the police also needs to be opposed.

    All it takes for bad people to take over is for good people to do nothing.

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