The weird world of comedy series Red Dwarf could be one step closer to reality today, with the news that a virtual talking head has been developed that may revolutionise the role of personal assistants.

The new system, which is nicknamed 'Zoe', can express a full range of human emotions and could lead to the creation of life-like computerised personal assistants, similar to the bodyless 'ship computer' Holly in Red Dwarf.

In that series the talking head boasted an IQ of 6000 but her human characteristics, including a love of practical jokes and witty put downs, led to constant problems for the other characters.

Although it is unlikely Zoe will be able to play tricks on its owner in quite the same way, the designers claim it can realistically recreate emotions such as happiness, anger and fear.

Developed by Toshiba's Cambridge Research Lab and the University of Cambridge's Department of Engineering, Zoe it is said to be the most expressive controllable avatar ever.

The face of the system is actually that of Zoe Lister, an actress best known as Zoe Carpenter in the Channel 4 series Hollyoaks.

Professor Roberto Cipolla said: "This technology could be the start of a whole new generation of interfaces which make interacting with a computer much more like talking to another human being.

"It took us days to create Zoe, because we had to start from scratch and teach the system to understand language and expression.

"Now that it already understands those things, it shouldn't be too hard to transfer the same blueprint to a different voice and face."

The system is light enough to work in mobile phones and uses could include smartphone personal assistants or face messages to replace texts.

It works by using a set of fundamental emotions. Zoe's voice, for example, has six basic settings: happy, sad, tender, angry, afraid and neutral.

The user can adjust these settings to different levels, as well as altering the pitch, speed and depth of the voice itself.

By combining these levels, it is possible to create almost infinite emotional combinations.

For example, a combination of speed, anger and fear makes Zoe sound as if she is panicking.

Scientists hope the software could soon be adapted to allow people to upload their own faces and voices in a matter of seconds.

If this can be developed, then a user could, for example, text the message "I'm going to be late" and ask it to set the emotion to "frustrated".

Their friend would then receive a face message that looked like the sender, repeating the message in a frustrated way.

The team is also working with a school for autistic and deaf children to see if Zoe could be used to help pupils read emotions or learn to lip-read.

"Present-day human-computer interaction still revolves around typing at a keyboard or moving and pointing with a mouse," Prof Cipolla said.

"For a lot of people, that makes computers difficult and frustrating to use.

"In the future, we will be able to open up computing to far more people if they can speak and gesture to machines in a more natural way.

"That is why we created Zoe - a more expressive, emotionally responsive face that human beings can actually have a conversation with."