Peter Wall Exchange touches on the relationships between AI and human emotion

Earlier this month, hundreds of Vancouverites came from all over the city to listen to MIT Professor Dr. Rosalind Picard lecture on engineering artificial intelligence (AI) to understand human emotion.

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies hosted Picard at the Vogue Theatre, where she spoke on her research with affective computing — AI that can recognize and simulate human emotion — and her recent applications of that technology to medicine.

Picard went over several different applications of AI in her talk, including the initial work of adapting computers to read human emotion and possibly prevent spirals into depression.

She also discovered a correlation between increased stress signals in the arm and epileptic seizures. This led to wristbands that inform caretakers of a patient’s seizure within moments of its beginning. Simply having people present directly after a seizure reduces the chance of death, so this technology can help improve patient outcomes.

After her talk came a Q&A session that touched on a variety of contentious topics, including some of the more dystopian potential of her research. For example, a customer service AI programmed to respond to every irritated customer who has a scowl and increased heart rate could also be programmed to try to manipulate those consumers.

There is also a fear that this technology could empower corporations to pry beyond what we’re comfortable with. Picard stressed the importance of our own engagement in ensuring our privacy and understanding of technology.

“I urge people to find out what kind of data is being collected and where it’s going,” Picard said. “Ask questions … Where are we going with this [technology]? What is the future we want?”

Dr. Phillipe Tortell, then-director of the Peter Wall Institute, agreed with the importance of education, especially on controversial issues.

In an interview with The Ubyssey, he discussed how the Peter Wall Exchange is intended to raise the bar on public discourse and help the audience be more knowledgable when discussions about thorny topics arise in government legislation or corporate ethics.

Tortell said he wants the talks to become “ ... a Canadian institution on par with the Massey Lectures and the Munk Debates.” The lectures are in a purposeful central location for ease of access and the speakers are chosen from solicitations of experts in their field.

“We think about areas that are particularly topical and areas that are potentially synergistic with other things that are going on at the Institute.”

Tortell added that the Institute will host an international conference on drug policy and harm reduction next spring, and will be bringing in an expert on these topics.

“I’m thinking at the moment about areas that people really care about and people really need guidance and expert advice on those areas … [It’s] a really important way that people take that information and use it in a way that’s important for them.”

On the SkyTrain home from the Vogue, an older woman sat by me, hovering over her iPad. She was doing exactly what Tortell envisioned — leaving the event and immediately educating herself more about Picard and relevant topics.

By Tortell’s standards, the event was a success.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Wall Exchange was slated to be cut, but as of this publishing there are no such plans. The Ubyssey regrets this error.