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What humans really want - creating computers that understand users


March 7, 2011

Researchers are working on software that will allow computers to recognize the emotions of their users (Image: Binghamton University)

Researchers are working on software that will allow computers to recognize the emotions of their users (Image: Binghamton University)

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Binghamton University computer scientist Lijun Yin thinks that using a computer should be a comfortable and intuitive experience, like talking to a friend. As anyone who has ever yelled "Why did you go and do that?" at their PC or Mac will know, however, using a computer is currently sometimes more like talking to an overly-literal government bureaucrat who just doesn't get you. Thanks to Yin's work with things like emotion recognition, however, that might be on its way to becoming a thing of the past.

Most of Yin's research in this area centers around the field of computer vision – improving the ways in which computers gather data with their webcams. More specifically, he's interested in getting computers to "see" their users, and to be able to guess what they want by looking at them.

Already, one of his graduate students has given a PowerPoint presentation, in which content on the slides was highlighted via eye-tracking software that monitored the student's face.

A potentially more revolutionary area of his work, however, involves getting computers to distinguish between human emotions. By obtaining 3D scans of the faces of 100 subjects, Yin and Binghamton psychologist Peter Gerhardstein have created a digital database that includes 2,500 facial expressions. The emotions conveyed by these expressions all fall under the headings of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. By mapping the differences in the subjects' faces from emotion to emotion, he is working on creating algorithms that can visually identify not only the six main emotions, but even subtle variations between them.The database is available free of charge to the nonprofit research community.

Besides its use in avoiding squabbles between humans and computers, Yin hopes that his software could be used for telling when medical patients with communication problems are in pain. He also believes it could be used for lie detection, and to teach autistic children how to recognize the emotions of other people.

This is by no means the first foray into computer emotion recognition. Researchers at Cambridge University have developed a facial-expression-reading driving assistance robot, while Unilever has demonstrated a machine that dispenses free ice cream to people who smile at it.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

One thing I always wish for on a multi-monitor setup - a computer that automatically makes windows active when I look at them.

Stephanie Dana

Just what we need - a computer that thinks it knows how the user thinks (or should think). Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been building software like that for years, especially Jobs - if you don\'t think like him, a Mac is incomprehensible.

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