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Speaker Spotlight: Rosalind Picard

Rosalind Picard

Rosalind Picard came to campus as a part of COLA's Digital Humanities Distinguished Speaker Series. Picard, who holds doctorates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in electrical engineering and computer science, is the founder of affective computing and Affectiva Inc.

Picard's talk, "Technology Reads Your Emotions and Lets You Share It" discussed wearable technology like Q sensors, a device that can be worn on the wrists or ankles to measure skin conductance, temperature and activity level.

A good portion of Picard's research centers on the autism spectrum. Since people along the autism spectrum may have trouble understanding emotion, Picard and her team worked with them to see how the Q sensors might aid them.

"It turned out we only had a part of the story," said Picard in an interview. "We thought they had trouble recognizing emotion and while some do, an even bigger issue was their emotions were often being misunderstood."

Picard quickly came to the conclusion that the focus of her research should be shifted to accommodate this revelation. As a result, she learned a lot about the unseen and unheard world of the autism spectrum.

"Most of us look stressed when we're stressed or we sound stressed," said Picard.

On the other hand, individuals on the autism spectrum "might get so autonomically overloaded that their motor system might shut down and they might look very in need of stimulation when in fact that's the last thing they need."

Wearable technology like Q sensors appears to be the wave of the future, part of a trend in which people's habits are altered by the latest gadgets. The ability to decipher emotions and stress in a way that can be measure objectively is an important piece to the evolving puzzle.

"There's a lot of groups that want to understand their stress or things their stress adjusts, like sleep." said Picard. "As you can monitor physiologically what's going on you can sometimes get people to not just understand it but believe it more."

The ability to wirelessly monitor arousal, emotion and stress is part of growing trend of self-monitoring. Wearable technology has been important to its rise.

"There's so much health-oriented technology; healthcare is really shifting from the doctor's office to people's body and day-to-day measurements," said Picard. "I think we're just at the beginning of that; the shift is going to be much bigger."

Picard is aware of the concerns that this information could be used unethically. She suggests that it's the responsibility of everyone involved to understand the ramifications of tracking and recording our emotional well-being.

"I think it's very important that people recognize the digital emotion to be stored and forwarded in ways that traditional communication of emotion hasn't been," said Picard. "We need to think what we want the future to be."

As technology encroaches on our privacy, Picard recommends that we weigh the benefits and drawbacks in our consumption habits.

"Some things are clearly good--when people have the opportunity to be better understood and better express their voice and their opinions about things," said Picard. "There are also concerns where your technology, your emotions might be used to exploit you."

That's why the digital humanities are so important to the way that technology is created and designed to solve human problems, because digital humanists are thinking through problems like these.

"It's not just computer science for computer science sake; to build a better machine," said Picard on what makes the digital humanities different. "It's always been about what can technology plus people do that makes people better."

Schools like RIT are uniquely positioned to produce meaningful, technology-driven solutions to problems that affect people on the strength of their cooperation between the computing and engineering schools and the humanities.

"Technical stuff is always best when it's in combination with something else, something that needs people," said Picard. "You guys [RIT] are combining real technical chops, real computational sophistication, with real problems that matter to people."