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Alexa, I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About Amazon’s Emotion-Detecting Wearable

May 23, 2019, 9:47 PM UTC

From video streaming to prescriptions, cloud services to doorbell cameras, Amazon is in our lives in more ways than we count. But there’s one particular place—my emotional health—where I really don’t want the e-commerce giant poking around.

Amazon is working on an Alexa-powered wearable that can read emotions, Bloomberg is reporting, citing people who claim to have knowledge of the company’s plans. Using microphones and artificial intelligence to identify how we’re feeling, Amazon would be able to collect emotion information and perhaps share it with other health products, Bloomberg’s sources say.

But Amazon’s plan goes beyond that.

Bloomberg’s sources also say that Amazon’s device would use the emotion data to serve relevant ads or product recommendations to people based on their emotional state. So, if a person is feeling happy, they might see one ad or a particular product recommendation. If another person is feeling sad, fearful, angry, or any number of other emotions, they’d get different recommendations better suit their mood.

The science of this ad play suggests Amazon might be on to something. In 2016, Nielsen research revealed that ads that considered human emotion and elicited an emotional response generated a 23% gain in sales volume, compared to those that didn’t include emotional elements.

“Emotions are central to advertising effectiveness,” Nielsen said. In other words, the more companies understand about how you’re feeling in any moment, the more effective they can be in advertising to you.

Amazon told Fortune in an e-mailed statement that the company doesn’t “comment on rumors or speculation.”

Yet for many consumers, wearing a device that logs smiles instead of miles could be a step too far, even for the most tech-obsessed among us. A wearable that reads emotions could work well for targeting ads, but what happens if it says you’re feeling stressed when you’re not, or detects happiness when you’re really down? It could make you question your own feelings.

As someone who firmly believes in therapy, evaluating one’s emotions, and digging into the things that really bothers us, I know how hard it is to identify and understand what we’re truly feeling in a moment. What makes Amazon think it can do a good job of understanding our emotions, when we often struggle to identify them, ourselves?

Alexandros Potamianos disagrees. The chief technology officer at Behavioral Signals, he thinks that emotional knowledge can have positive effects on humans. And he’s so bullish on the topic that his company is building a platform for virtual assistants, robots, and other technologies to incorporate emotional intelligence in their features.

“Emotion recognition… can work, and can prove a useful tool in the relationship between humans and machines,” Potamianos says, adding that there’s a bright future for targeting people with ads based on their emotions.

“We can definitely see potential in ads if they are appropriately sensitive and aware of the person’s feelings,” he says. “Suggesting to a person, feeling stressed, a good podcast to listen to, or a book to read, might not be a bad idea.”

Alexa, get out of my head

But what about privacy implications? It’s one thing to know my interests and the websites I visit for targeting ads. But do I really want someone to know my emotions?

It was just a month ago, after all, that Bloomberg reported that Amazon employees monitor the things people bark into their Echo devices to improve Alexa’s responses.

“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg at the time. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience.”

Would Amazon or any other company that might look at capturing human emotions need to evaluate emotional data to make the service work better? It’s unclear, but it would seem likely.

Still, Potamianos believes there’s nothing to worry about.

“Every new technology gives rise to fears, but [Behavioral Signals] believe[s] regulators will eventually step in to protect the consumer,” he says. Potamianos also cautioned that any potential good could far outweigh the bad.

The problem with that logic, of course, is that tech companies have never been fans of regulation. And in occasions where regulators want to step in, most tech companies balk. Even Facebook, which earlier this year called for more regulation, was criticized by many industry watchers for not going far enough in the regulations it could swallow.

Potamianos argues the good in emotional awareness can outweigh the bad. And he ultimately believes it can improve lives.

“Think of the possibilities for people with mental health issues or elderly people in distress,” he says.

I have. And Alexa, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.