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Tomorrow’s world

Computers that can read your face

Computer technology is now freakishly adept at reading human faces, says Madhumita Murgia in the Financial Times. A computer camera can watch “unblinking” as “emotion detection” AI flags “micro-movements of muscles” and attempts to identify emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and fear – via eye tracking and voice tones.

Nosy companies already want to splash out. The value of the emotion-detection industry is projected to jump from $19.5bn in 2020 to $37.1bn by 2026. Amazon, Microsoft and Google all offer basic emotion analysis. Car companies like Ford, BMW and Kia Motors want to use it to assess driver alertness.

Vicky Lim, creator of an emotion-detection algorithm named 4 Little Trees, says her system works 85% of the time. That’s not good news for the Hong Kong schoolchildren who have to sit in front of her software. It sends them alerts to “get their attention back when they are off track”.

Not everyone is convinced. A 2019 review by the Association for Psychological Science looked at 1,000 studies of emotion-detection tech. It was “not possible to confidently infer happiness from a smile, anger from a scowl, or sadness from a frown”, it said – people scowl for all sorts of reasons. The ethics are also rocky. Who wants a computer dobbing in their innermost impulses?

👁 The Chinese government is using “disturbing” emotional-analysis interrogation systems at its police stations in Xinjiang. A Chinese software engineer told BBC’s Panorama that the device is set up three metres from Uighur Muslim test subjects, who are used like “rats in a laboratory”. The theory is that micro-changes in the size of their skin’s pores give away “anxiety or negative thoughts”, like a vastly more sophisticated lie detector.

But detainees are placed in “restraint chairs”, with their ankles and wrists chained, to apply “maximum mental pressure” – a stressful bind in which to be scored on anxiety. “It’s used to confirm the authority’s pre-judgment without any credible evidence,” said the whistleblower. “The computer score reveals the suspect is dangerous, therefore must be guilty of many wrongdoings which have not been confessed yet.”

Panorama: Are You Scared Yet, Human? is on the BBC iPlayer. Watch a clip here.

How bad is a falling global population? 

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The looming global population slump could “make birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals” by the end of the century, says The New York Times. From 2050 or even sooner, the world’s population will start spiralling down exponentially, and by 2100 only a dozen countries will have fertility rates above the replacement level of 2.1 children per family. And this “demographic time bomb” is exploding the widespread assumption that the young will pay for and look after the old.

South Korea’s fertility rate is 0.92, the lowest in the developed world, and its population of 18-year-olds has nearly halved since 1992. In Japan, nappies for the elderly outsell those for babies. Italy is experiencing what Pope Francis recently called a “demographic winter”, with some southern towns seeing an 80% fall in population. The future is potentially more drastic still. Nigeria’s population could exceed China’s, which might halve to 730m by 2100. By then, China could have as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds.

But it’s not all bad news. Affordable childcare and paid parental leave have led to a slight increase in Germany’s fertility rate, which is now 1.54. Many women are having fewer children out of choice, and those children could enjoy higher wages, greater equality and lower carbon emissions.

A declining population is like “a rock thrown off a cliff” – hard to reverse. But all is not lost: as one social scientist says, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our destiny.”