If the eyes are the window to the soul, then it should come as no surprise in the age of surveillance capitalism that marketers are clamoring to look deeply into yours. That’s metaphorically speaking, of course. In reality, it’s more skin deep.
As humans, we’ve been trained since birth and via natural selection to rely on our sense of vision for survival. But we have also learned to read our fellow humans’ emotions and intentions, consciously and unconsciously, by scanning their eyes. We can infer all sort of things from pupil dilation, eyebrow position, eyelid movement and direction of gaze. But what if computers could do this, as well? (And do it better.)
Eye Tracking for Fun and Profit
I just read a truly fascinating article from Vice about how much our eyes give away and how computer systems can be trained to read our tells. I also learned the science behind human vision and the “bugs” in that system that can be very cleverly exploited. The ultimately terrifying aspect to all this science is how this knowledge can be employed to not only peer into our emotions and perceptions but to deftly manipulate them.
For example, did you know that our eyes twitch about once per second and during that time we are nearly blind? It’s called a saccade. Our brains fill in the missing information for us so we don’t notice. Virtual reality (VR) systems can detect these saccades and use them to subtly alter your behavior. In this amazing video, researchers were able to direct a human walking in a restricted space to avoid obstacles by shifting the virtual landscape during these saccades.
In another video, a professor shows how our eyes mislead us into believing a picture is static when in fact it’s changing. Our brains weed out unimportant things and focus on things that might require our attention. That usually means something that is moving – perhaps to attack us. But when something gradually changes, our brains filter it out.
A Double-Edged Sword
Technology based on observing our eyes could provide some wonderful medical applications such as diagnosing autism, Parkinsons, ADHD and concussions. But like all technology and scientific breakthroughs, they can be used for good and evil. For example, while health data can be used to identify problems, it can also be used to deny us coverage.
With eye tracking, the potential for privacy invasion and outright emotional manipulation are absolutely real. We need to be make sure that while we’re embracing the constructive applications we’re also building in legal and technical safeguards against the malevolent and subversive ones. Step one is always awareness. It’s a long article, but I highly recommend taking the time to read it. (Be sure to watch the embedded videos, as well.)