Emotion-sensoring device developed by University researchers

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When one first reads about the research done by Professor Paul Coulton, and the rest of Lancaster’s Design Fiction research team, it feels more like reading the prop descriptions of a science fiction movie than the research brief of ground breaking technology. But with the current development of the Voight-Kampff machine, there isn’t much of a difference.

Inspired by and named after the empathy polygraph of the 1982 blockbuster The Blade Runner, the Voight-Kampff machine is the name currently used for the Lancaster based research project. This research is for a device that would measure skin and heart rate responses and pupil-dilation, all with a sleek 21st century interface plugging into devices like smartphones and laptops.

The project brief explains that “in terms of proposed uses of the device, detecting rogue androids is not yet a plausible scenario. Instead we envisaged the device being used as a way of gauging empathic responses in online communications between individuals not known to each other, for example, via online dating services”.

Although the device is still entirely fictional, the research behind it is picking up speed. While design fiction is not the usual approach to technological breakthroughs, it has major benefits in situations like this.

Head of Research, Professor Paul Coulson, told SCAN, “the factor that differentiates and distinguishes design fiction from other approaches is its novel use of ‘world building’ and we consider whether there is value in creating fictional research worlds through which we might consider future interactions.”

The Centre for Spatial Analysis (CASA) at UCL, are keen to get people to think about the ethical implications of a world in which we use computers to monitor or even manipulate our emotions, and an American film-making company has requested to film the creation of the device.

But the bigger questions about the project lie not in how to make it, but if it should be made. And if it works, what implications technology like this would have for society.

“We built this world in which rules for detecting empathy will become a major component of future communications. We take inspiration from the sci-fi film ‘Blade Runner’ to consider what a plausible world, in which it is useful to build a Voight-Kampff machine, might be like. People are working towards this kind of thing,” Professor Coulton explained.

Professor Coulton told SCAN that he and the rest of his team are “questioning whether it has a place in our society – what kind of uses they have and what the world would actually be like with them.  We want people to think about the ethical implications of what we do. Technically a lot of this is possible but is it actually what we want?”

While online dating is not about to become more sincere in the next few months, the research around the Voight-Kampff device are opening up major discussions about the lines between technology and emotion.

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