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Exclusive: The challenges of integrating emotion into technology

FYI, this story is more than a year old

Recently IT Brief had the opportunity to talk to Datacom Customer Experience & Innovation GM Husain Al-Badry about AI in New Zealand.

What are the challenges of integrating emotion into technology? 

The biggest challenges to integrating emotion and technology are predominately cultural, in my mind. In a business context, emotions aren’t talked about often and they certainly aren’t embraced.

If I was to say emotions will drive digital disruption to the next level, you’d probably think my heart's controlling my head, right? 

Well, consider this; an emotion is a strong feeling deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others, things or experiences. Our emotions inform, direct, and, to a significant extent, determine our experience of the world, how we navigate it, and our relations with the things, people and experiences within it. 

What we are seeing now is that advanced technology can help us ‘read’ emotions. Advances in technology have led to the development of a field of study known as Affective Computing, also known as AC or Emotion Artificial Intelligence. It is a domain within cognitive computing and artificial intelligence that is concerned with gathering data from faces, voices and body language to measure human emotion. 

To give a view of the size of the opportunity that integrating emotion in to technology can offer, a study by in 2017 estimated that the global affective computing market is likely to increase from USD 12.20 billion in 2016 to USD 53.98 billion by 2021, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 34.7%. The affective computing market is growing rapidly, and much of this is owing to the increasing desire by businesses to understand the emotional state of their customers.

What are the benefits to businesses and other organisations of doing so?

There are significant benefits to integrating emotion into technology. Consumer intelligence experts Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas and Daniel Leemons say that emotionally connected customers are 52% more valuable than just highly satisfied customers.​​​​​​​ 

Emotionally connected customers are more likely to recommend you to others, make repeat purchases, trust your advice, and remain loyal longer. The focus should be on whether our products connect with emotional motivators – like a desire to feel secure, generous or important – rather than just asking whether customers want our product features.

Why was EmotionalX chosen as the theme for this year’s Datacomp?​​​​​​​ 

Emotional connectedness and designing technology for emotion are major international trends that we’re also seeing playing out in New Zealand. Fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that humans are emotional beings.​​​​​​​ 

At a time when we‘re experiencing rapid advancements in automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we thought that there was a strong need to harness technology to accentuate the warmth of our humanity, culture and relationships. Given that Datacomp is always about designing our future, we felt that encouraging emotional connections with people who experience and use technological products and services should be the core theme this year.

How far along this path are New Zealand businesses – how do we stack up internationally?​​​​​​​ 

Internationally, I see New Zealand lagging behind countries like the United States, Israel, Sweden, Norway and Canada in the application of Affective Computing into our businesses. However, there are some great stories where companies have sought to combine emotion and technology together.​​​​​​​ 

Soul Machines as an example, is a wonderful New Zealand business that is developing advanced technologies to create “artificial humans”—realistic computer-generated characters that can react intelligently, empathetically and efficiently to customer needs.

Soul Machines is pushing out what deeper experiences look like for companies. They are creating the opportunity for deeper emotional connections for people interacting with their technology and for me, that is incredibly exciting.

Which NZ companies in your opinion do really well at making technology with a human side?

Beyond Soul Machines, I think another really strong example is Air New Zealand. I’d say they’ve really nailed the power of creating rich experiences – enhanced or enabled by smart technology - that elicit positive emotions.​​​​​​​ 

For me personally, and it is a really simple use case, but I love the experience of ordering barista-made coffee via Air NZ’s tablet or smartphone app. The minute I walk into one of the airline’s Koru Clubs around New Zealand is an automated experience which creates a positive emotion – I feel more at home. As a result, my experience with the Air New Zealand brand is positive.

Can you think of any exciting projects developed at Datacomp 2018 that illustrate the theme?​​​​​​​ 

Well, the winner of Datacomp, as well as the 2nd and 3rd place getters, are good examples!

First place went to Team Taupuhipuhi for their solution Village that helps people become more aware of their emotional wellbeing - like a modern-day guardian angel. Using behavioural tracking, geo-location and social media tracking it will identify where you are at emotionally, and if necessary, will notify parents or loved ones you need help. The team is donating their $2,000 prize money to a suicide prevention charity.​​​​​​​ 

Second place went to Team Excalibur for Piki, a mobile platform for people with lived experience of homelessness. It’s a self-directed programme, delivering socially connected personal growth, and showcases the skills, talents and interest of people using the app, to help match up with jobs and educational opportunities. Piki was designed with tertiary education provider Unitec and extensive collaboration with people from Auckland City Mission.​​​​​​​ 

Third place went to Team Mira who built a personal health coach using a smart mirror screen with an AI engine, facial recognition, emotional detection and the ability to track voice and tonality. It’s like an intelligent mirror that you can talk to, encourages you, helps you achieve personal goals and provides comfort without judgement.

What kind of solution would you most like to see?​​​​​​​ 

I really liked where Team Mira, the team that built a personal health coach using a smart mirror screen, we're going. Imagine an intelligent mirror that helps and support you without judgement. How might this be applied to a retail setting? What if it had automatic payment processing? I could literally, shop and carry.​​​​​​​ 

Beyond this, the things I would like to see more of in New Zealand is where companies focus on areas of friction – points of pain and frustration for customers, places like queues as an obvious example. Amazon has done this with Amazon Go, their future convenience store in Seattle.

The technology inside the store enables a shopping experience like no other we’ve seen here in New Zealand yet — including no checkout lines. It is a reimagined experience; there are no registers, no cashiers anywhere. Shoppers enter and leave the store through gates and without pausing to pass over a credit card, their Amazon account gets automatically charged for what they take out the door.​​​​​​​ 

The smarts behind the Amazon Go experience remove the friction in shopping. While you are shopping if you grab an item off a shelf, Amazon automatically put into the shopping cart of the customer’s online account. If the customer puts the item back on the shelf, they remove it from their virtual basket.​​​​​​​ 

These are the types of experiences I would like to see more of here in New Zealand.

What was the most exciting aspect of this year’s event?​​​​​​​ 

This year was exciting because of the level of student participation and involvement. We had students from Auckland University of Technology, Auckland University, Manukau Institute of Technology, Massey University and Media Design School and also GirlBoss students. What we loved the most was that these students pitched ideas and some of them actually ended up leading teams to deliver on their vision. This is inspiring and shows that if you can create a safe place, then anything is possible.​​​​​​​ 

One of the things I am personally incredibly proud of is that a lecturer from one of the participating universities let me know that our Datacomp events seemed to reduce the stress and anxiety from students about moving into a working environment, it gave them a taste of what to expect. Creating the link to future opportunity and also reducing anxiety and stress for students entering the workforce is something that is an absolute bonus to the work we do.  


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