All the major tech companies have been exploring ways to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve their products and be more competitive in the marketplace, and Apple is no exception. The tech giant's latest acquisition in that space is Emotient, a startup whose technology analyzes people's faces to assess their emotions.
Neither Emotient nor Apple responded to our requests for more information about the transaction. The acquisition was first reported yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, but no details about the purchase price or time frame were available.
Automated emotion recognition has a wide range of potential applications, from enabling better medical care for non-verbal patients to gaining insights into the responses of political candidates during public appearances (something Emotient did with participants in the first Republican presidential primary debate in August). The technology also has obvious appeal to advertisers and marketers seeking to better understand how to attract customers and increase sales.
'Objective' Coding of Facial Expressions
Emotient's Web site was recently updated -- apparently in response to the Apple acquisition -- and now includes relatively few details about the company's history and technology. However, previous versions of the site available through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine show the company has been active since at least 2013 and was spun out of research at the Machine Perception Lab at the University of California, San Diego.
The company's leadership team included CEO/president Ken Denman, an angel investor who led the initial public offering for the Wi-Fi networking company iPass; senior vice president for product and business development Edward Colby, who worked for Apple earlier in his career; and advisory board member Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of California Medical School.
Ekman developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to "objectively and comprehensively code human facial expression, in order to study the relationship between facial movement and internal state," according to an archived version of Emotient's leadership Web page. Emotient has said it is "the only company that provides automated FACS coding following Dr. Ekman's guidance."
Raising Privacy Concerns
Advances in facial recognition technologies have raised concerns and objections among privacy proponents and others. For example, Facebook's use of facial recognition to analyze images and make friend "tag" suggestions to users is currently being challenged in court in a class action lawsuit alleging the technology violates the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.
It's not clear how Apple intends to use such technology in its products and services, but the company has shown an interest in facial recognition applications for some time. Last year, the company acquired another startup, Faceshift, whose motion-capture technology "trains" animated images to recognize human expressions. Faceshift's technology can be seen in action in parts of the movie, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
In 2014, Apple also applied for a patent for software to analyze people moods, and in October acquired another AI company that analyzes natural human speech, according to the Journal.
In August, Emotient put out a news release saying that its technology could read the emotions and moods of Republican candidates appearing in the first presidential primary debate. Its software concluded that Donald Trump, who has dominated much of the early race, predominantly conveyed anger, while Ted Cruz revealed almost exclusively "sadness" and Marco Rubio displayed an even blend of "neutral," "surprise" and "joy."