Rhodri Marsden: Do we want our laptops to know when we're in a bad mood?


As an emotionally sensitive man who has formulated a grossly over-inflated estimate of his own emotional sensitivity, I want to assure you that if you're feeling bad, I can tell. It's etched into your face, it's detectable in the tone of your voice, and more than evident by the way you keep shouting "bollocks!" at loud volume.

My phenomenal levels of empathy then allow me to adjust my behaviour accordingly by bringing you cups of tea and singing you a soothing collection of ballads by Johnny Mathis. It's just what humans do for each other. Computers, however, struggle to compete in this field. My laptop can't tell when I bristle with indignation. Yes, my phone might be able to recognise the words I'm saying, but it always delivers the same implacable response regardless of whether I'm cooing with delight or screeching with fury.

And some might say that this is how it should be – that devices should pay no heed to our wildly fluctuating emotions, that we rely on them to remain dispassionate and functional while we claw at carpets and chew our fingernails. They can already tell what we like, by the way we click, reply, skip forward and rewind; it's probably better if they don't know how we feel, as well.

The capability of computers to recognise emotion, however, is gathering pace. Over the summer, an Israeli firm called Beyond Verbal raised millions of dollars in funding; its vice president described how its software can "understand a speaker's transient mood and emotional decision-making characteristics in real time", by analysing the modulations of the voice. Applied to one of the 2012 presidential debates between Romney and Obama, it managed to detect practicality, anger, strength, provocation, cynicism and ridicule in Obama's tone – which is either unerringly accurate or completely wrong, depending on your own political allegiances.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that a US company, Affectiva, is releasing software to mobile developers early next year that can sense human emotion by analysing the expression on our faces. We already know that Microsoft's newest version of Kinect can track muscle and skeletal movement in fine detail, and that analysing emotional reactions to games is in the pipeline, but Affectiva is doing it already, thanks to the collation and examination of 1.5bn videos of volunteers' faces while they watched online entertainment. The resulting software could potentially distinguish, say, nose wrinkles of mild contempt from nose wrinkles of cute affection, although whether it can spot good acting is another matter entirely.

So what use is voice analysis, facial scanning, sweat detection? How can it benefit us and improve our lives in the long term? Analysts fast-forward to a time when machines can respond to us more tenderly, perhaps by playing the soothing music of the panpipes if we're stuck in roadworks, or cueing up an episode of Parks And Recreation if we're feeling down. In other words, the technology itself is more remarkable than its applications. Its real value, of course, is to companies who are desperate to assess brand perception and brand loyalty. Computers may never be able to emulate human empathy, but they'll certainly be able to point you in the direction of a product that'll make you feel better – if you have the money to spend. Ker-ching.


Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own