Coming soon: the sensitive, caring computer

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Scientists are devising "intelligent" computers that respond to that most irrational kind of human behaviour – the ranting and raving of Mr Angry at the keyboard.

The computers, under development in the US, will "know" when users are frustrated and respond with soothing words.

Experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab are writing programs that can reduce "computer rage" by responding to the user's shouts of anger, facial expressions or skin changes caused by emotions.

The work follows the creation of a robotic dog, Aibo, by the Japanese electronics giant Sony, which can show devotion, pleasure and sadness.

The developments suggest that the story in Steven Spielberg's latest epic, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), featuring David the android boy with emotions, is not entirely far-fetched.

Another MIT team has designed "expression glasses" with miniaturised sensors that detect facial muscle movements. From them a computer can detect emotions such as confusion or interest.

It is thought that, eventually, computers will be built with their own independent "emotions" and use them to improve their performance, assessing the emotional or psychological impact on humans of their mistakes.

Though the film A.I. has done disappointing business at the US box office, possibly because it fails to supply a feel-good ending, the subject matter, "emotional intelligence", has been heralded as an exciting new phase in thinking machines. It could also open up a new era in entertainments. Toy and computer games of the future will be able to react to the player's emotions and express their own fear or anger.

"People might find it more fun if computers react in a way which is plausible, by showing fear or anger," said Professor Aaron Sloman of the University of Birmingham. "It produces more entertainment."

At present, the most likely use of "emotional intelligence" will be to sense the emotions or state of wakefulness of a user or people near them.

Professor Sloman, an AI specialist, said the technologies could improve safety by allowing computers to detect whether a train driver or airline pilot had fallen ill or stopped concentrating. It could also allow employers to check on the mood and temperament of their staff.

Similar technologies can also help in warfare. The latest development in computerised battle simulation used by the US military is to program emotions into their virtual soldiers. "Modelling emotional responses to panic and fear is an area where everyone wants to go," said Wayne Zachary, who works for Chi Systems in Philadelphia.

Eventually, computers with their own emotions could be standard. Dr Cindy Mason from the University of California has designed software called EOP, or emotionally oriented programming, which gives computers the ability to show "mood, temperament and feeling".

According to Professor Sloman, that could have profound effects for everyday life by creating sophisticated computerised teachers or even robots that could care for the elderly.

"People will be living long beyond the point where they are physically fit, but who's going to look after them?" he said. "Perhaps some friendly robots would be able to do that job."