Affective AI: What the New Trend in Tech Says About the Importance of Emotional Connection

Artificial Intelligence has been heralded as “the next big thing” for a few years now—an unsurprising development given the astounding range of applications, from helping people navigate between subway stations, composing emails, automating stores, and even to playing Jeopardy.[1] While tech giants including Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and IBM have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into AI technology over the last couple of years, the importance of AI isn’t limited to the tech sector: almost every Fortune 100 company is now incorporating AI into its growth strategies.[2]

One of the ways that researchers are hoping to use AI outside of traditional tech space is by teaching computers how to interpret and respond to human emotions. Affective AI, software that can intuit human emotion, is still in its infancy, but promises to unlock an entirely new universe of applications.

At MIT, researchers are using the technology to help address the mental health crisis. They added affective AI to Koko, an online community which crowd-sources emotional support. After reading through many human-generated requests for support and responses, Kokobot could differentiate between different levels of distress, accurately respond to user messages, and provide resources in cases of emergency.[3] Affective AI company Brain Power is trying to help those with autism. Special glasses interpret the facial expressions of others, as well as the wearer’s own bio-markers, so that they can feed social cues and other advice to the wearers.[4] The glasses also collect and interpret experiential data, which can guide the user’s development and allow their caregivers to track progress. Meanwhile, Affectiva is developing a suite for automotive use. Using cameras and microphones placed in the cabins of cars, Affectiva’s software tracks indicators of anger, happiness, drowsiness, and alertness.[5] These insights are used to warn drivers to grab a cup of coffee or take a break when they start to lose focus, calm and redirect those experiencing road rage, and customize playlists to match a driver’s mood.[6]

By pivoting toward affective AI, the tech community is recognizing the importance of connecting with users and the market potential of creating products that address the higher order needs of consumers. The insight that advanced technology alone is no longer enough if it isn’t tailored directly to the target is relevant beyond the tech sector. More than ever, success—whether you’re selling microchips or potato chips—is predicated on connecting with the target’s emotions and values. Affective AI represents the future no matter what business you’re in.