“AI” is Being Used to Profile People From Their Head Vibrations – But Is There Enough Evidence To Support It?


by James Wright, Activist Post:

Digital video surveillance systems can’t just identify who someone is. They can also work out how someone is feeling and what kind of personality they have. They can even tell how they might behave in the future. And the key to unlocking this information about a person is the movement of their head.

That is the claim made by the company behind the VibraImage artificial intelligence (AI) system. (The term “AI” is used here in a broad sense to refer to digital systems that use algorithms and tools such as automated biometrics and computer vision). You may never have heard of it, but digital tools based on VibraImage are being used across a broad range of applications in Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

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But as I show in my recent research, published in Science, Technology and Society, there is very little reliable, empirical evidence that VibraImage and systems like it are actually effective at what they claim to do.

Among other things, these applications include identifying “suspect” individuals among crowds of people. They are also used to grade the mental and emotional states of employees. Users of VibraImage include police forces, the nuclear industry and airport security. The technology has already been deployed at two Olympic Games, a FIFA World Cup and a G7 Summit.

In Japan, clients of such systems include one of the world’s leading facial recognition providers (NEC), one of the largest security services companies (ALSOK), as well as Fujitsu and Toshiba. In South Korea, among other uses it is being developed as a contactless lie detection system for use in police interrogations. In China, it has already been officially certified for police use to identify suspicious individuals at airports, border crossings and elsewhere.

Across east Asia and beyond, algorithmic security, surveillance, predictive policing and smart city infrastructure are becoming mainstream. VibraImage forms one part of this emerging infrastructure. Like other algorithmic emotion detection systems being developed and deployed globally, it promises to take video surveillance to a new level. As I explain in my paper, it claims to do this by generating information about subjects’ characters and inner lives that they don’t even know about themselves.

VibraImage has been developed by Russian biometrist Viktor Minkin through his company ELSYS Corp since 2001. Other emotion detection systems try to calculate people’s emotional states by analysing their facial expressions. By contrast, VibraImage analyses video footage of the involuntary micro movements, or “vibrations”, of a person’s head, which are caused by muscles and the circulatory system. The analysis of facial expressions to identify emotions has come under growing criticism in recent years. Could VibraImage provide a more accurate approach?

Image of the audience at a football match.

Surveillance systems can profile individuals in huge crowns. Csaba Peterdi/Shutterstock

Minkin puts forward two theories apparently supporting the idea that these movements are tied to emotional states. The first is the existence of a “vestibulo-emotional reflex” based on the idea that the body’s system responsible for balance and spatial orientation is related to psychological and emotional states. The second is a “thermodynamic model of emotions”, which draws a direct link between specific emotional-mental states and the amount of energy expended by muscles. What’s more, Minkin claims this energy can be measured through tiny vibrations of the head.

According to these theories, involuntary movement of the face and head are therefore emotion, intention and personality made visible. In addition to spotting suspect individuals, supporters of VibraImage also believe this data can be used to determine personality type, identifying adolescents more likely to commit crimes, or categorising types of intelligence based on nationality and ethnicity. They even suggest it could be used to create a 1984-style test of loyalty to the values of a company or nation, based on how someone’s head vibrations change in response to statements.

But the many claims made about its effects seem unprovable. Very few scientific articles on VibraImage have been published in academic journals with rigorous peer review processes – and many are written by those with an interest in the success of the technology. This research often relies on experiments that already assume VibraImage is effective. How exactly certain head movements are linked to specific emotional-mental states is not explained. One study from Kagawa University of Japan found almost no correlation between the results of a VibraImage assessment and those of existing psychological tests.

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