The Mix

Computers that read your mood

Emotion recognition software says Mona Lisa is happy, and may soon be able to read your mind, too.
Do you ever wish your computer could sympathize with you when you lose a bidding battle on E-bay? Or that it would congratulate you on a completed spreadsheet? Well, that could happen someday soon, apparently.

Such "emotion recognition" software declared recently that Leonardo De Vinci's infamous Mona Lisa was, in fact, happy. Well, mostly. The computerized analysis, conducted by the University of Amsterdam, actually decided that Mona Lisa was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry. Neither human emotion nor computerized sensitivity is an exact science, but researchers are working on creating an array of machines that will be responsive to human emotions.

European researchers at HUMAINE (Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion) have toyed with the idea of an emotion-sensitive Jukebox that "selects media based on the user's current mood." The jukebox could have a personalized archive "indexed with respect to their general emotional tone." Frown angrily at the emo-jukebox and it'll start playing Rage Against the Machine. Smile, and it might put on the Beach Boys.

Then there's the "Caring Plant," being worked on in Chicago by Accenture Technology Labs.

The plant would be used to monitor/spy on the medical patients and the elderly, and then report back to clinicians. Slightly Big Brother-esque, but an interesting idea. The selling point for me, though, is that the plant would also know when to water and fertilize itself.

Accenture is also working on creating a sensitive, caring computer telephone operator marketing the idea like this:
"Imagine a large call center (e.g., an airline's telephone reservation system or a software company's help desk) using emotion recognition to automatically recognize irate customers calling with complaints or urgent problems and route them to specially trained operators. This technology can also assist 911 services and other crisis centers to prioritize calls and respond to emergencies quickly."
It's an interesting concept, but I have a feeling this type of system would simply be a training device for humans. We would learn that in order to reach a live human, we just belligerently scream at the automated menu.

Also, I wonder how this type of software would respond to sarcasm, or a passive-aggressive personality. Or whether the "caring plant" would be able to read mentally ill patients accurately. But, then, all this is in the somewhat distant future. You know, right before every over-worked, resentful laptop, cell phone, and fax machine rises up against us in an all out computer-human war… Oh wait, that would never happen. Fax machines are way too wimpy to pick a fight.
Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet and associate editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies.
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