Can your computer make you happy?

Being made angry by your PC is nothing new, but what if hardware could actually improve your mood? Machines that read emotions are coming to a desktop near you. Anna Leach reports

In sci-fi films, when anyone gives a computer emotions, it all goes horribly wrong. The computer becomes vain, doubtful and irrational and Armageddon by wayward technology is only narrowly avoided. Yet machines that can recognise our emotions and respond to them are a hot new area in computer design.

We're not talking about handing a global missile defence system over to a PC with a lot of feelings, but we are talking about improving the interface between humans and computers by making computers easier and more intuitive to interact with. For example, computers that sense when a user is getting frustrated could try a different way of explaining how to troubleshoot the internet connection. Cars that can tell when a driver is about to fall asleep could sound an alarm.

Though computers have become more attuned to how humans behave, there are still glitches in communication. Your PC may have the processing power of a small space station from the Seventies, but it can't tell if you're upset. Building an awareness of human emotions into computers would be very beneficial, whether it's through facial and smile recognition, through analysing the words you say or type, or monitoring the pitch of your voice or the style of your gestures.

The laboratory for Affective Computing at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts it like this: "Emotion is fundamental to human experience, influencing cognition, perception, and everyday tasks such as learning, communication, and even rational decision-making. However, technologists have largely ignored emotion and created an often-frustrating experience for people, in part because affect has been misunderstood and is hard to measure."

A computer doesn't know that you're frustrated; it just knows you're doing it wrong. Currently, you need to be a human to detect that sort of thing – or at least a dog. But there are some distinct commercial advantages in making emotional computers.

At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, Asus (creator of the Eee PC) revealed a range of concept computers called Waveface. It features a watch, a laptop and a TV, and as well as touchscreens and high-definition images these futuristic candy-coloured gadgets promised emotional intelligence.

"Every element in the user's environment, even down to the user's own physiology and emotional state, can be sources of data to help deliver the right information and services at the right time," is how Asus described its new wunder products. Jonney Shih, CEO of Asus, explains what that means. But it is not, it turns out, sessions where you tell the TV about your feelings.

Shih anticipates a future where the office, the home and the public space are all connected by cloud computing. The internet will be accessible everywhere and the amount of information on the internet will only grow.

"So much information now is available from the internet, from the cloud," he says, "so the challenge now is how to screen or filter that information so that you can get it when you really need it." Asus's Waveface products will use data about you (from where you are to your emotional state) to help tailor the information and services it offers to what's relevant to your particular situation.

To this end, Asus has a concept of an intelligent agent, a sort of invisible avatar for the user, that is built into the computer interface and acts on the user's behalf.

"We have what we sometimes call the intelligent agent," explains Shih, "which tries to help you get what you need at the right time and the right place. The goal is to achieve real-time, real-place and real-human information. Making sure that you always know where you are, know where your friends are, know your parking space and points of interest to you: restaurants, meeting places."

The details of the Waveface products are still shrouded in manufacturer secrecy, but we can expect them on the market in three to five years. But it is not just computer manufacturers who are intrigued by the new interactivity.

Other companies putting money into this area include car manufacturers. Toyota hit the headlines in 2005 with the Pod, an experimental car which signalled the mood of its driver to other road users by brightening, dimming or colouring the headlights. The car was embedded with voice recognition software by Scottish company Affective Media which uses the tone and the pitch of the voice as indicators of the driver's emotion.

As well as altering the headlights, if the car judged the driver to be stressed it would release soothing perfume, flick on some mellow music and perhaps suggest a less-congested route. If it sensed a driver was about to doze off, it would wake them with an alarm.

"Stressed drivers are bad drivers," says Ray Warde, CEO of Affective Media, "and so is a person about to fall asleep.

"The voice of a driver gives a lot of information about the way they are actually behaving at the time," he explains. "At the moment only certain models of cars will talk to the driver but that will become more common and drivers will start to control cars through speech recognition."

There are innumerable ways car or mobile-phone makers could incorporate this software into their devices.

While manufacturers and money men consider the commercial uses of emotionally-intelligent computers, academics such as Dr Russell Beale, a senior lecturer in Computer Science at Birmingham University, take a broader view on why it's useful for computers to be able to detect our emotions and then respond as if they too were emotional beings. We already treat computers like they have feelings. Beale mentions a seminal book by two scientists called Reeves and Nass, The Media Equation: how people treat computers, TV and New Media like Real People and Real Places, which was published in 1998. The book describes a psychological experiment showing that people treated computers (at that time, standard Nineties terminals with green lights on a screen) as if they were social beings – as if the machines had emotions and personality.

"Without these systems trying to be sensitive or 'affective' in any way" Beale says, "people were still viewing the computer as if it had responses and they didn't want to upset it.

"Since then," he explains, "people have realised that when you're dealing with an interactive system the more interactive it gets – the more you start thinking, 'Oh, this is how I interact with people.' That makes you think about the aspects of interaction that are missing and emotion is obviously one of them."

The second reason is engagement. "Research so far has shown that people are more engaged with a system that seems to demonstrate emotional responses," Beale says. "It makes people more caught up in the interaction that's happening, whether you're talking about games or learning or healthcare systems."

There are social uses for emotional technology. Beale is working on projects that use emotional computers to help people: from getting them to eat healthily to giving up drugs.

However, there are limits to where we want emotional computing. It's a question of context. "People often say 'it's going to be much better dealing with interactive computers because it's going to understand me better', but frequently we use computers simply as tools," Beale says. "If you're writing an urgent report you don't want Microsoft Word saying to you, 'You seem a bit stressed, would you like to take a break?' You'd be like, 'No, I've got a deadline.' Sometimes you just want systems to respond as tools."

He cites the Microsoft paperclip as an example of an inappropriate intervention. "It would ask you sensible stuff, but for most people, it kept popping up at the wrong time and getting in the way."

Yet there other cases such as teaching and sports coaching when emotional response, whether encouraging or slightly negative, will boost performance. Beale gets to the heart of the emotional computer: "In the same way that it's easier talking to someone who has empathy with what you're saying, who gives you extra responses apart from just a straightforward verbal reply, it makes our everyday interactions much easier.

"In the right cases, putting empathy into computer systems is really going to help."

Emotional electronics: How they could be used

Cars

The mood of a driver has a big effect on how s/he drives. If the car picks up on stress or excitement in a driver it could signal that to other drivers by changing the colour of external lights for example. Signs that a driver is about to fall asleep could trigger a wake-up alarm.



Smart wrist watches

Wrist devices like the Elite in Asus's Waveface range could pick up how you are feeling through voice, gesture or skin resistivity. It could act as a remote control to household appliances – turning the heating on if it detects you're cold, putting soothing music on the sound system if it detects you're stressed, offering you TV channels and programmes that it thinks suit the mood you're in.



Education

People are more engaged with systems that seem to respond to them emotionally. They enjoy the experience more and stay with emotional systems for longer. This could be good for teaching, and could be programmed for children with special requirements from ADHD or autism – computers could pick up on frustration or boredom and react to remedy it. When trained teachers or counsellors are in short supply, these emotional computers could fill the gap.



Gaming

Games could use emotional intelligence to create even more engaging and immersive experiences for their users: monitoring excitement levels means the computer could detect boredom for example, or tease or string out suspense more effectively.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Opilio Recruitment: Senior Developer

    £50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

    Opilio Recruitment: Senior Front End Developer

    £50k - 70k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Senior Sales Executive - SaaS/ Cyber Security - £60,000

    £32000 - £34000 per annum + Uncapped OTE £65,000 : h2 Recruit Ltd: Looking for...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Software-as-a-Service/ SaaS - £42,000

    £28000 - £31000 per annum + Bonus + Progression: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you looki...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game