Tech & Innovation

Wayfair Co-Founder Steve Conine Discusses Emotionally Intelligent Technology with Dr. Javier Hernandez

Have you ever wondered how life might improve if technology could better understand your emotions? Could our lives be better, safer, less stressful if our computers and machines could know when we’re frustrated, burned out or distracted? When you begin unpacking all the implications of emotionally intelligent machines, you can imagine an endless range of exciting possibilities and tough questions.

Hundreds of Wayfarians recently tuned into a live discussion between Wayfair co-founder Steve Conine and Dr. Javier Hernandez to hear them discuss this concept. As it turns out, this technology – called affective computing – is already here, and improving every day.

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The hour-long event was hosted by Wayfair’s in-house far-future research and development lab, Wayfair Next. “Looking into the future and learning about emerging technologies has always been part of Wayfair’s culture, so we were thrilled to invite Dr. Javier Hernandez to share his thoughts on one of those technologies – affective computing – during a virtual learning session with our co-founder Steve,” said Shrenik Sadalgi, Head of Wayfair Next. “We're fortunate to be part of Boston's world-class technical and academic community. It’s always exciting to have the opportunity to learn something new from an expert in their field, and the conversation with Dr. Hernandez certainly appealed to the curiosity and creativity of our teams.”

You can watch the full video here, which features not only Steve and Javier, but also some great artwork by Jenny Leonard, drawn in real time to illustrate the discussion.

“Affective computing is a field of research that tries to evaluate and develop tools that can understand, sense and simulate human emotions, for many different purposes,” explained Javier. Like so many of the big challenges we tackle at Wayfair, affective computing is very interdisciplinary, involving aspects of human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence and signal processing, to name a few of the many fields contributing to the technology. “Think of emotional artificial intelligence as a layer that you can put on top of anything,” said Javier.

“When I was at MIT, I studied stress and how we can understand stress of users to help augment experience. For example, if you’re suffering stress at work, what can the computer do to help change that? We looked at intelligent cars – can your car see you and make your driving experience safer? At Microsoft Research I look at the future of how these technologies can make the workplace more effective and productive.”

Javier and Steve discussed questions such as “How can we help avoid frustrations when using technology – helping technology sense emotion just like we can when we’re interacting on a personal human-to-human level. If we can have that level of emotional intelligence, how might that change technology?” Drawing on his vast experience in the field, Javier shared that affective computing really started with a few sporadic applications in market research and security, but now we’ve seen it bloom everywhere – from transportation to customer service to HR and many other areas.

“Now that it’s moving from research into real-life applications, we’re thinking even more carefully about ethics and the implications of using this kind of technology in a way that augments humans rather than limits them,” said Javier.

The impact of this technology is growing and changing at a rapid pace. “I always find it fascinating that when new technologies come out, a lot of times people have a vision for areas that they could be applicable to, and they prove not to be, but then they evolve,” Steve noted during their conversation.

Tune into the video to hear their wide-ranging discussion, covering some of these topics and more:

  • Recommendation systems and how affective computing can make user experience better by personalizing content recommendations. 
  • Theories of emotions and how we’re learning what emotions are, how they change, how they’re expressed actively and passively through technology
  • Go-to metrics for measuring impact of affective computing
  • Stress and burnout in the workplace
  • The future of this technology and exciting new areas where there are potential benefits (e.g. precision medicine with telehealth, improving driver safety, etc.)
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Next Innovator Series - Affective Computing

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