Logo for the Mapping Project

The Mapping Project


Affectiva is a software startup which grew out of the MIT Media Lab, and which claims to make gadgets that can "read human emotions."

Affectiva has made surveillance bracelets, called "Q Sensors," intended to be used in the classroom to detect how attentive students are to teachers. The project, which received millions in funding from the Gates Foundation, is part of the broader, privatized neoliberal vision of education that billionaires and entrepreneurs like have been pushing. As Reuters reported in 2012:

The biometric bracelets, produced by a Massachusetts startup company, Affectiva Inc, send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. The wireless devices have been used in pilot tests to gauge consumers’ emotional response to advertising. Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out. Existing measures of student engagement, such as videotaping classes for expert review or simply asking kids what they liked in a lesson, 'only get us so far,' said Debbie Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation. To truly improve teaching and learning, she said, 'we need universal, valid, reliable and practical instruments' such as the biosensors."

Affectiva's biometric bracelets not only increase surveillance of students for the purpose of advancing a privatized vision of education, but also promote the broader ongoing introduction of carceral systems and prison-like conditions into America's schools. Moreover, Affectiva's biometric bracelets promote the ableist view of students as machines that must exhibit uniform physiological responses to whatever is in front of them, no matter the context.

Another product created by Affectiva's co-founder, the "Emotional Hearing Aid," also reflects this ableist perspective of capitalizing on differences for profit. As autistic activist M. Remi Yergeau explained: "I recently read an article by Rana el Kaliouby and Peter Robinson (2005) titled 'The Emotional Hearing Aid,' which problematically represents autism and difference. The article focuses on a futuristic prosthetic device for autistic children: a so-called emotional hearing aid, which is a wearable camera that functions as a “portable” theory of mind... In short, the authors imagine a world in which autistic kids are fitted with obtrusive and sensorily overwhelming devices, under the faulty premise that autistics lack the ability to recognize that they and other people have their own unique mental states and desires. Not only do the authors presume autistics lack a ToM [Theory of Mind]; they also presume that a host of autistic behaviors and rhetorical practices are caused by this supposed lack of ToM, and that erasing those differences will be to the benefit of autistics and their loved ones. There is a perverse fetishization of difference that often attends autism, in part because those differences are so often couched in terms of negativity or symptoms" (see: Yergeau & Huebner, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 48 No. 3, Fall 2017, 273–296).

Unsurprisingly the US Pentagon has also invested in developing surveillance gadgets capable of determining human emotions like those which Affectiva produces, and we can be sure that the Pentagon would use such devices for nefarious and repressive purposes.

Back to main page.