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Blade Runner’s Emotion Detector is Becoming a Reality

In the 1982 science fiction classic, Blade Runner, an emotion-detecting machine called the Voight-Kampff is used by the Blade Runners to identify replicants by measuring respiration, heart rate, blushing and other bodily functions in response to emotion-generating questions. In 2016, researchers in England have designed a real emotion detector, ostensibly to be used to determine if your “human” date really likes you. Really?

A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body … The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements.

That description, from the original Blade Runner press kit, could also describe the “emotion detector” created by Lancaster (England) University’s design fiction expert Professor Paul Coulton and presented this week at the ACM CHI 2016 conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

A 3-D printed model of the Emotion Detector

A 3-D printed model of the Emotion Detector

What is ‘design fiction’? Coulton describes it as designing things based on a future world of human-computer interaction.

The factor that differentiates and distinguishes design fiction from other approaches is its novel use of ‘world building’ … As an example, we built this world in which rules for detecting empathy will become a major component of future communications. We take inspiration from the sci-fi film ‘Blade Runner’ to consider what a plausible world, in which it is useful to build a Voight-Kampff machine, might be like.

Coulton’s emotion detector, which will clip onto a smartphone, has an earpiece to measure heart rate and skin temperature and an eyepiece to measure pupil dilation. While it’s still on the drawing board (although a model was 3-D printed), Coulton’s team is assembling the pieces and a film crew (not associated with Blade Runner’s Ridley Scott) wants to record the production process.

Is it a dating tool, Professor Coulton, a real Voight-Kampff or something even more sinister (not that an emotion detector for dates isn’t already pretty creepy)?

People are working towards this kind of thing. What we are doing is questioning whether it has a place in our society — what kind of uses they have and what the world would actually be like with them. We want people to think about the ethical implications of what we do. Technically a lot of this is possible but is it actually what we want?

Thinking about the ethical implications of doing something? Why start now?

Would you do it for a date with me?

You don’t like me, do you?