Beware of the new mood sensor censors watching you at work


Imagine dying suddenly and not telling Facebook about it. It’s probably the thing about death that we fear the most – which Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t find out right away. Fear not, because Apple has covered this terrible possibility.

Apple now interprets information from sensors to report your emotional state and has released technical details on how to access it.

In their wisdom, the Apple boffins have decreed that there are 10 detectable emotional states, and oddly enough, one of them is “death.” How do you emotionally express that you are dead? The absence of a pulse would make this one of the simpler interpretive challenges, one might think.

But kidding aside, this gruesome discovery is part of a disturbing trend among big tech companies: to glean your emotional state for others to see.

Unscrupulous employers and lazy public health officials will barely be able to contain their glee, but for employees, and the rest of us, it can be very worrying.

Last year, Amazon introduced a fitness watch, Halo, with some unusual functionality. Halo does all of the usual things that every fitness tracker does, like counting steps and taking your pulse. Only he introduced something new: a mood monitor.

By listening to your voice, the Halo judges whether you are too angry or bossy – and not just that, but warns you to be careful of your tone. He’s an electronic mood cop who lives on your body, denouncing you.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how employers will use this data when they want to lay off staff for reasons other than performance – as some already want. Misguided employees no longer have to worry about bothering staff – they could bother sensor censors, too.

Apple confirmed last week that sentiment data was initially only available to health researchers, where it might be helpful to spot early signs of autism or dementia.

The API is not for everyone yet, but powerful interests are at work. Biomedicine is betting big on expanding this data pool, and insurance companies are enthusiastic too – so it’s naive to expect this to remain cloistered in the lab for very long.

The nanny state also wants to supplement direct health care – with all those long, individual personal appointments – with preventive interventions as well. It is however in the workplace, where employers are already encouraged to use biometric data, that we can expect to see an impact first.

We are witnessing a disturbing confluence of three major trends. One is the decades-long expansion of corporate bureaucracy. Personnel departments have been transformed into “human resources” and have multiplied with the regulatory explosion in health and safety. Now they’re metamorphosing again, pushing into the more nebulous realm of “well-being”.

Well-being is an open justification for making judgmental intrusion into feelings and guessing our mental state. It’s a big step in making sure your desk is at the right height and that you know where the emergency exit is. This means that companies take on the role of psychologist and the tech industry sells clothes that claim to help them.

The second factor is the rise of awakened capitalism. Companies find it cheaper to signal virtue to high-level opinion than to increase salaries, for example, which frees up HR departments. They can now demand reflection and self-analysis, like the students of the Cultural Revolution crying out for the bourgeoisie.

The third factor, and a powerful accelerator, has been Covid and the Global Shift to Work from Home, or WFH.

“There is a much broader abandonment of home, office, stations, trains, cafes, hotel rooms, and personal thought – sometimes, an abandonment of sleep itself – to employers who are endlessly demanding, ”wrote Professor James Woudhuysen in a recent history of the office as a surveillance operation in Architecture magazine.

Granted, the BlackBerry has made great inroads into our personal lives, but the WFH has accelerated that. The boss wants to know you are doing it at all times. So what you thought was your own gear becomes work gear, including things you need to wear like a mood gauge.

Casual real-world contact gives managers both essential non-verbal cues and the ability to use common sense. In its absence, data fills the void, so judgments become more centralized – career-defining personal decisions ending up with HR juniors awake. In fact, we’re probably going to censor ourselves even more.

There are one or two issues with this raw digital phrenology, however. Don’t expect him to distinguish between sentiments like “a French waiter hearing a badly pronounced entry” and “Roy Keane Death Stare” – two that I would like to convey, if they were only available.

Apple’s Feelings API lists 10 states – next to Death, the device will report that you are angry, anxious, confused, depressed, sad, or “have health issues” – all negative. “Absolutist” is another odd choice of “feeling,” which means really bossy or bossy.

And on the positive side? Oddly, there is only one: Positive. That’s it. It’s almost as if the boffins have charted a course that is impossible for anyone to navigate successfully, so many traps we could fall into. But that’s the dark secret of the wellness industry to you – they really want as few “good” people as possible.

Even though Apple doesn’t make the Sentiment API universally available, I’m concerned this collision of tech, quack science, and awakening may not end well.

Andrew Orlowski is founder of the Think of X research network

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