These "social x-ray specs" read people's facial expressions. But they could have unintended consequences.
It finally happened: Someone invented telepathic glasses. Okay, they don't actually read your thoughts, but these "social x-ray specs" do attempt to decipher emotions via facial expressions and cues that the typical person often misses. These glasses come with a camera and headphones that will tell you if your conversation partner is "thinking," "agreeing," "concentrating," "interested," "confused" or "disagreeing." The last two even elicit a red light to let you know it's time to shut up.
The glasses, which were originally developed to help autistic people understand social cues, could change the way we relate to each other. The author of a piece in New Scientist, Sally Adee, says the glasses "can thwart disastrous social gaffes and help us understand each other better." Even those of us without autism fail to pick up on subtle but important facial expressions—an arched brow, a wandering gaze, pursed lips—that could clue us into what another person is thinking. "Blink and you miss it," Adee says.
Now for some real talk: The idea of these glasses is terrifying. They essentially declare war on the white lie, something we often use to smooth over social interactions. Why does your aunt need to know you didn't like her Christmas present? These specs would seem to consign us to a life of involuntary radical honesty, the brainchild of psychotherapist Brad Blanton. I shudder at the thought.
Not only that, but the glasses are only 64 percent accurate, just about 10 percent more than our naked brainpower. What happens when the glasses are wrong—when we actually do love Aunt Jan's knitted sweater, but we thought it was a jacket at first, so we made a perplexed expression? Also, what if you have mixed feelings about the sweater? 'It's cute,' you think, 'but people at school might make fun of me.' Is there an automated response for ambivalence? What about people with Botox, or drunk people, or tired people?
Perhaps the scariest prospect is that with the knowledge that their facial expressions are being monitored, people would simply get better at lying and masking their emotions. I can understand the use of these spectacles with autistic patients, but if I ever see a person using them just for kicks sometime in the future, I might just run the other way.