Who owns your feelings? Short doc shows how big tech uses AI to track emotions
Augmented reality film exposes how companies can track and sell consumer data
Watching Noah Levenson's short documentary Stealing Ur Feelings is undoubtedly intended to be an uncomfortable experience.
The short film, which premiered in Montreal as part of the International Documentary Festival this week, explains how big business has the capacity to use artificial intelligence programs and facial recognition software to track and monitor the emotions of its users.
But he does this by using the same technology against the viewers of the film.
"It uses facial emotion recognition AI to watch you back. So it analyzes your face as you react to content it shows you," explained Levenson.
"So, the film uses the camera in your device to make you the star of the film."
He's not kidding. Several times throughout the film, an image of the user watching the video will be seamlessly spliced into the film like a selfie, only it's unexpected and live.
It's an uncomfortable reminder that the camera on these devices is never really "off."
The film is best watched on a device with a built-in camera, like a phone, iPad or laptop.
Once the film starts, the AI scans the face of the viewer and makes a series of "personality inferences" about them, including an estimate of their IQ, annual income and political leanings.
"Depending on your reactions, the film makes a series of decisions about what you're like," he said.
The software isn't 100 per cent accurate, Levenson stresses, but it does offer a best guess based on limited data.
Levenson is a computer programmer by trade, and began researching the potential impacts of this kind of facial emotion tracking technology in an effort to understand how it might be used by corporations.
Analyzing how you feel and where
In his research, he discovered patents from major tech companies who collect data on the emotions of users who post seflies or videos to their platforms and link it to their geolocation.
For Levenson, the worst case involves this data being bought and sold without users ever knowing about it.
"Social networks and consumer applications may be secretly using facial emotion recognition AI to extract and monetize information about you," he told CBC's Let's Go.
He said users of social media platforms and apps are not informed enough about the kind of data they are allowing companies to access.
"We're giving big tech corporations unrestricted access to our faces all the time," he said.
The augmented reality film has previously screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and at the Tate Modern in London.
Levenson's hoping his short film — which doesn't store or share any of the facial data it collects — will help raise awareness about the realities of what artificial intelligence can do.
"When you give an application access to your face, you don't really realize the complexity of the system that you've opted into," he said.
Stealing Ur Feelings is playing at the Montreal International Documentary Festival's UXdoc space for interactive and virtual reality experiences. The UXdoc space is located at the Cinémathèque québécoise.
Stealing Ur Feelings is one of nine projects being featured there until Nov. 23. It can also be watched online here.
With files from CBC's Let's Go