In this fast-changing world of new technologies, curiously under-discussed are the roles played in technology by human emotions and their soft-science cousins — motivations and attitudes. Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data provide us unprecedented opportunities to learn more about our emotions, though it is doubtful they will ever become as objectifiable as hard sciences, i.e. biology, physics and their ilk. Which is probably a good thing, by the way.
Emotions and motivations are private parts of our lives. Not wanting to be exploited ( even by our own selves! ), we often don’t feel safe opening up about them. Reading, and subsequent thinking, are time-honored means of private exploration. Therefore, since no one is listening or judging – between you and me, I bet you want to know more….
It’s a funny thing about emotions – as soon as you focus on them they either go away or intensify. They don’t exist in their pure form when consciousness is applied to them. Motivations are equally tricky, because we often lie to ourselves about why we are doing something, or we simply don’t understand our own motivations. So we are going to go there, then come back. Circle around, then take a break. It’s the nature of the beast.
Except for those making an extreme effort to suppress them, it is now generally agreed that feelings and mindfulness play a hugely important role in our existence. There has been a marked change in recent years of learning to accept our emotions and process them in healthy ways. Still, they are not integrated into our lives nearly as much as is good for us. This is especially true for men and boys. Though emotions are inherently equal, our societal messages say otherwise. Sadly, it is often “not cool” for boys to acknowledge and talk about feelings in healthy ways. So much so, that by the time boys become men, it is at the least uncomfortable, and at the most anathema, to openly discuss their feelings. Why is this so? One explanation goes back to the primal idea that exposing our feelings leads to vulnerability, and therefore implies weakness. Life, survival and success are often thought of as a power struggle – and perceived weakness is seen as a hindrance. Even as women integrate the “man’s world”, these precepts remain largely unchanged. Like many institutions, it has evolved that way. No one in their right mind would choose to start such a society today.
So here we are. Fortunately, we have new choices and new ways to repair the messes we have made. Wars, rampant capitalism, racism and other societal ills are not caused by reasonable discourse and problem-solving, but by emotions of fear, anger, greed, rage, et al. If we knew how to better deal with these emotions, chances are the world would be more civilized. So imagine (play John and Yoko Lennon song) safely exploring these areas, and learning to get better, one person at a time, without fear of judgment, punishment or exploitation.
Many of today’s new technologies center around virtual reality devices, part of a continuing trend making computers more vivid and bringing them closer to our faces. With closeness comes a more heightened sense of reality and emotions, primarily because we feel we are in the scene we are observing, sometimes even as a participant. Being there is just part of the story, and this is where it gets really interesting. As we experience new “up close and personal” technologies – via videos, games, social media, web surfing, or interactive software – we can gather our emotional responses during our experiences. By either registering them ourselves, such as clicking emojis, or even having bio-sensors record our pulse, eye movements, etc. and translating these inputs into feelings. As we build up our own personal emotional databases, or emo-bases if you will, artificial intelligence algorithms will associate our experiences with our feelings. Then we can have experiences presented to us to evoke certain emotional responses. It can be as simple as us choosing to feel pleasure, hope or wistfulness. Or as complex as using these curated experiences to grow, to heal, to increase our “Emotional IQ”.
At this point some of you are cheering on this brave new world and others are saying, “Whoa. Hold on a minute. Is this even possible? If so, do I even want it?” Bear in mind that versions of these scenarios are already playing out via our smart phones and computers in the worlds of advertising, music and video services, even politics (as a recent Guardian piece chillingly explains). Of course, it is one thing for us to be sold on something, and quite another to expose our innermost selves. So let’s swing back in…
If our personal emotional data is used solely by marketers and other purveyors, then understandably there will be strong resistance. If the data is used for medical research and to benefit ourselves directly ( therapeutically or for personal growth), then there will be more consumer buy-in. Fitness trackers spring to mind as a current analogy. We are willingly gathering and analyzing our own personal medical data to help transform ourselves physically. The main difference with emotions is that we will be inventing most of the science as we go along. Current research around emotions, motivations and attitudes is relatively sparse. This will undoubtedly change as the body of data grows. And as with all new technologies, it will progress on multiple fronts – entertainment, education, healthcare, and productivity tools. And progress we will. Our fascination with knowledge, technology and ourselves guarantees it.
Technological advances are often double-edged swords. They are tools for our use, yet we are also becoming tools of forces beyond our immediate control. Our emotions, attitudes and motivations are at the very center of this. The potential for therapeutic applications using new technologies will affect all of our lives. As we employ technologies to help treat severe emotional disorders such as chronic depression, anxiety, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, to name a few – there will be crossover into everyday issues. Stress management, overeating, and addictive behaviors are issues everyone can identify with to some extent. And the beauty of it is that we can opt into emotional improvement at many different levels. We can be proactive with data and usage, such as with fitness trackers. Others may want peripheral benefits. We can use new technologies in entertainment, education, etc and reap emotional benefits without trying or even being aware of it. Emotional improvements can gradually be incorporated into our lives as effortless natural activities. Regardless of the level of involvement, if any, that we choose for our emotional growth while using new technology – it will behoove us at the very least to keep up with how marketers and other purveyors are attempting ( and often succeeding ) in emotionally manipulating us in our techno-charged world. Forewarned is forearmed.
At this point an elephant in the room needs to be addressed. As we spend increasing amounts of time with new technologies, this can come at the expense of “real-world interactions”. We should take care not to become too attached to technology. Techno tools can be used to strengthen us for venturing in the world using our own devices – our brains and bodies. Virtual realities can be springboards towards seeking out equivalent “real” experiences. There are exceptions, of course. Those who have difficulties getting out ( residents of care facilities, for example ) will benefit immensely from virtual environments and experiences. Inclement weather can also be a factor where a virtual experience is preferable to a real one. Personal interaction in VR can also be a benefit when many miles separate participants.
Visions of singularity aside, VR and AI will never surpass the miracle of our humanity. So let’s educate and monitor ourselves and our society to implement new technologies in ways that are best for us, not just for making money or mindlessly increasing pleasure and leisure. Let’s learn more about being human and embrace what that really means, improving the quality of our lives, and ultimately our business and government institutions. Replace our fear, anger and power struggles with openness, quiet confidence, cooperation, forgiveness and tolerance. Given we are human, our foibles will never go away, but we can lessen their negative effects.
Oh, and this can be our little secret. No need to tell anyone you are opening up until you are ready. When you feel the inevitable rushes of emotion that accompany entry into the new worlds of VR with AI, just let it happen. Make a private pact with yourself to explore, grow and heal. I promise, it will be worth it. Yes, it’s a lot to take in. But so is this modern world. Welcome to tomorrow.