Girl Decoded

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From The Wall Street Journal:

What if the disinterested machines that surround us and encroach on every aspect of our lives were sensitive to our emotional states? Imagine fridges reprimanding us for our furtive late-night snacks. Or cars decelerating when we are anxious, or preventing us from driving when we are distracted. Consider laptops offering gentle words of consolation or praise, or washing machines groaning with indignation and wristwatches chastising us for our misdemeanors and lack of attention.

In “Girl Decoded,” Rana el Kaliouby’s compelling vision of an emotionally imbued future for artificial intelligence, indifferent machines are elevated into magnificent humanlike creations. While lacking—for now—the authentic emotions of their human counterparts, emotionally enhanced automatons might nevertheless do a perfectly good job of imitating them.

Such devices, in addition to invigorating human-machine relations, have the potential to convey emotional awareness to people—such as those with autism—who struggle to navigate routine emotions. They may also help track emotional states, predict depressive crises and detect the loss of emotional expression that often accompanies diseases like Parkinson’s. Marketing companies could engage them to evaluate reactions to new products. Had Shakespeare’s Othello possessed such a device, he might have been better equipped to understand Desdemona’s intentions. But how might such an imagined world of machine-facilitated emotional enlightenment be brought to fruition?

Ms. el Kaliouby’s brilliance is demonstrated in the simplicity of her solution. While earning her doctorate at Cambridge University, she learned the importance of nonverbal information as she communicated with her geographically distant family back home. She suspected the intricate facial muscles that enable us to grimace, smile, laugh and frown might provide a conduit into the lexicon of human emotions. Once a range of expressions is defined, they could be incorporated into the anatomical structures of emotionally enabled automatons.

Former archivists of the anatomy of emotions, such as Charles Bell in “Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting” (1806) and Charles Darwin in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872), established the foundations of the science of emotions. Darwin’s unique use of photographic representations was itself rooted in artistic exposition, perhaps influenced by the drawings of the Renaissance painter Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, whose early-16th-century “A Man With Eyes Shut Tight” documented a dystonic facial expression in a remarkable level of detail.

A Man With Eyes Shut Tight
Giovanni Agostino da Lodi

Inspired by Rosalind Picard’s seminal book “Affective Computing” (1997)—which emphasized the importance of emotions to intelligence, rational decision-making, perception and learning, and reimagined our relationship with machines—Ms. el Kaliouby set out to construct a “mind-reading machine” or “emotion decoder” based on the deciphering of facial features. Given the potential universality of emotions, such a device would need to be relevant to all ethnic groups and cultures.

[Note: PG couldn’t find the book. The link to Affective Computing goes to a 1995 paper published in the M.I.T Media Laboratory Perceptual Computing Section Technical Report No. 321]

A fortuitous encounter with Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism expert, led Ms. el Kaliouby to his unique archive of videos that captured people displaying a wide range of emotions. With the help of sophisticated machine-learning algorithms, and later innovations while she was a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, Ms. el Kaliouby’s machines eventually learned to recognize a rudimentary “emotional palette” encompassing six different human emotional categories.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The reference to Dystonia in the the OP in connection with the image of the man with his eyes shut sent PG down a Dystonia rabbit hole.

From The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

What is dystonia?

Dystonia is a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures. The movements may be painful, and some individuals with dystonia may have a tremor or other neurologic features. There are several different forms of dystonia that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles, or muscles throughout the body. Some forms of dystonia are genetic but the cause for the majority of cases is not known.

What are the symptoms?

Dystonia can affect many different parts of the body, and the symptoms are different depending upon the form of dystonia. Early symptoms may include a foot cramp or a tendency for one foot to turn or drag—either sporadically or after running or walking some distance—or a worsening in handwriting after writing several lines.  In other instances, the neck may turn or pull involuntarily, especially when the person is tired or under stress. Sometimes both eyes might blink rapidly and uncontrollably; other times, spasms will cause the eyes to close.  Symptoms may also include tremor or difficulties speaking.  In some cases, dystonia can affect only one specific action, while allowing others to occur unimpeded.  For example, a musician may have dystonia when using her hand to play an instrument, but not when using the same hand to type.  The initial symptoms can be very mild and may be noticeable only after prolonged exertion, stress, or fatigue.  Over a period of time, the symptoms may become more noticeable or widespread; sometimes, however, there is little or no progression. Dystonia typically is not associated with problems thinking or understanding, but depression and anxiety may be present.

Following is another example of dystonic facial expression depicted in art. According to Google Translate, the meaning of hargneux includes surly, aggressive, fractious, angry, snappish, crabbed, waspish or shrewish. A snarling dog is sometimes called a hargneux.

Chien hargneux a toujours les oreilles déchirées translates to “A snarling dog always has torn ears.”

Le hargneux (Soult)
Honoré Daumier

According to PG’s quick and dirty research, Soult refers to French Marshal General Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851), described as Napoleon’s most able Marshal. Soult appears to carry a secondary meaning of a stern or aggressive appearance. PG is happy to have any of his errors corrected in the comments.