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The computer that can hack into your emotions

FRUSTRATED? Angry? No one understands you? Never mind, get a computer. Computers are being taught to sense different human emotions.

The work is being done by Dr Rosalind Picard, who runs the world's first research group devoted to enabling computers to detect and respond to human emotions. She and her students have already built a variety of inconspicuous devices for people to wear which collect data on pulse and breathing rate, blood pressure and overall states of arousal - all important cues to our emotional state.

Dr Picard's team, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, has, for instance, built "confusion-sensing glasses". They have detectors which can pick up electrical activity in the eyebrow muscles resulting from the slightest eyebrow-wrinkling, caused when we furrow our brows.

Dr Picard told the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting that emotions were fundamental to communication between people and to the way we reason and take decisions.

Psychologists have shown that patients lacking emotions are unable to make rational decisions; if we don't feel sadness or frustration how are we to learn from our mistakes?

To have really effective communication between people and machines they will have to be programmed to first detect clues to our emotions, use the data to compute what state we are in and finally devise the correct response, Dr Picard said.

Within a couple of decades we are likely to be holding conversations with them, and the play of emotions - even if it is only subtle - is essential to good conversation. "We're talking about machines that really can adapt to you, just like a person adapts to you," she said.

The cues could be changes in voice, or expression. Already a computer has been programmed to recognise half a dozen extreme emotions, based on facial movements.

Dr Picard's group has been concentrating on physiological data, including how well the skin conducts electricity, which is what lie detectors measure. There is also the prospect of computers being able to pick up cues to our emotions when we touch them. Many of us, perhaps appropriately now spend much more time touching computers at work than we do touching people.