Professor portrait: ”As far as eye information goes, we need to act now”
In dedicating his academic career to understanding the information the human eye yields, Professor of Computer Science at the IT University, Dan Witzner Hansen, has helped pave the way for an entire academic field – one he defines as Eye Information. In his inaugural lecture at ITU on November 18 at 3 pm in Auditorium 0, he will discuss the great potential of the technology as well as the ethical dilemmas.
The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, but if it were possible to know the most intimate details about a person by reading her or his eye, is that really something we would want? According to Professor of Computing Science, Dan Witzner Hansen, who over the last two decades has studied eye signals, it is imperative that we as a society learn to understand the ways in which eye signals can be identified and used in a digital world. We need to start talking about who has access to so-called eye information – a term coined by the researcher himself.
“Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and we have only just realized that eye information presents us with a set of serious ethical problems,” says Dan Witzner Hansen.
And the professor knows what he is talking about. In 2003, he finished his PhD at the IT University, as third candidate to graduate from the university, by writing a dissertation about the possibilities of producing less costly eye trackers – a technology that gathers data by analysing eye movement patterns. In doing so, Dan Witzner Hansen was instrumental in driving the evolution of eye tracking technology. Since then, the research on the area has taken tremendous strides.
Today, eye information is gathered and used in many settings. It is in your smartphone’s iris scanner, it helps identity people on surveillance video, and it is in the revolutionary technology that enables severely disabled people to control a computer by using eye movements.
“We make a lot of movements with our eyes, both consciously and unconsciously. Those movements yield a lot of information about us, if you what to look for,” says Dan Witzner Hansen. He was first researcher to prove that even the smallest movement of the eye is enough to identify someone by.
From a societal perspective there is a lot to gain from the research into eye information, according to Dan Witzner Hansen. He is currently involved in a research project aimed at improving means of communication for ALS patients. “We are, among other things, investigating what happens in the brain a person develops ALS. We want to be able to measure the changes that happen in the brain and that is where eye information is very useful,” the researcher says.
Specifically, the project is trying to uncover the link between ALS and dementia. The researchers hope that the technology can help detect the disease at an early stage.
“Dementia affects the brain in a way that we are able to register in eye movement patterns. By looking at eye movements, what the eye focuses on and when it does so, we may be able to detect the disease at an early stage in its development. The technology and the research still are not quite there yet, but it is definitely something that can potentially help a lot of people,” says Dan Witzner Hansen.
In his inaugural lecture, the professor will take as his point of departure eye information’s enormous value to society. There is a vast potential in analysing the signals transmitted by the human eye, and with the advent of machine learning our chances of understanding and utilising eye information have improved greatly. However, we must also be cautious:
“One thing is having the technology available to us, another thing entirely is understanding how to properly use it,” says Dan Witzner Hansen. “We have to learn to understand eye information, and we must always question our findings. There is no doubt that this technology will have a huge impact on future scientific developments, but if we do not remain critical, we risk jumping to conclusions that will render our insights useless.”
Dan Witzner Hansen will also be addressing the ethical concerns presented to us by the technology:
“Eye information can be applied in many different settings, many of which most people are unaware. The technology is developing at such a speed that we have not stopped to think about the potential dangers and pitfalls. That is a conversation we need to have as a society, and we need to have it sooner rather than later. As far as eye information goes, we need to act now.”
Dan Witzner Hansen’s inaugural lecture entitled Eye Information - Has nature given us unexplored supernatural powers? will take place in Auditorium 0 at ITU on November 18 at 3 pm and will be followed by a reception at 4 pm.