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banner Monday, 5 February, 2001, 14:17 GMT
Our friends electric
Computer BBC
Interactivity is the buzzword of the digital age, but who really wants to interact with a hunk of silicon? Wouldn't it be better if your computer knew how you were feeling?

They may be able to bring the world to your desktop and crunch their way through mountains of data in the blink of an eye, but our computers are still too dumb to realise when we're losing our rag with them.

A nursery school pupil using a computer BBC
"I'm not happy"
One in eight people find computer glitches more vexing than the break up of a relationship, a recent survey on "office rage" found.

Advocates of "affective computing" say this problem stems from the gulf between touchy-feely humankind and cold, aloof technology.

Body language and tone of voice are important signals in human interaction, allowing us to alter our behaviour in response to the mood of the person with whom we are dealing.

Rage against the machine

But despite spending many hours in our company - being constantly touched and occasionally shouted at - computers are generally none the wiser about us at the end of the day.

Affective computing researchers aim to make technology conform to the human way of doing things. The Emotion Mouse (EM) may be the first step along this road.

Cynthia the robot barmaid PA
"Cheer up, mate. Give him a double, Tony"
The EM is part mouse, part lie-detector. It gauges a user's mood by monitoring skin temperature, heart rate and, charmingly, sweat.

"If computers are going to adapt to their users, they first have to understand a little more about the user," says Wendy Ark, one of the IBM experts behind the EM.

In theory, EM will prompt your computer to spice up games action when it senses you're growing bored, or instruct it to turn on the charm when you're stressed.

Taking the mickey?

Of course, the EM could be used by your boss to check up on your thoughts, Big Brother style, or by companies to assess your attitudes to their products.

But affective computing may not stop at making computers which endeavour to please us. We may soon have to worry about our electric friend's feelings too.

Artificial intelligence experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a robot which thrives on human interaction.

R2-D2 from Star Wars PA
A boy's best friend?
Thanks to an array of cute facial features, Kismet can display such emotions as fear, anger, happiness and boredom in a familiar human way.

Ignore Kismet and a frown will cross its face. Give it the sort of attention you would devote to a baby and Kismet will reward you with a smile.

But play nicely, otherwise Kismet gets the wind up, a look of abject horror crossing its cow-eyed face.

Despite all the efforts its handlers make to please the robot, Kismet is no high-tech Tamagotchi.

Home help

MIT's Dr Cynthia Breazeal says there are serious applications for Kismet's descendants.

If robots are to enter our homes, say in the service of elderly or disabled people, they will have to adjust to the exact needs of their masters and pick up the visual cues all important to human communication.

"It's no good forcing people to adapt themselves to the way robots act. Why should they?" says Dr Breazeal.

Dr Who's robot dog K9 BBC
"Don't you shout at me! Fetch your own stick!"
"Socially-intelligent robots" may not just act like humans, they may even begin to think like us too.

Kismet is already learning to use a "pre-linguistic" babble in its interactions with Dr Breazeal. The next goal is for Kismet to get to grips with proper words.

Despite the high hopes for affective computing, it raises many questions. Indeed, do we actually want touchy-feely computers?

After all, what will it do for our stress levels when a problem with our office computer is effectively the same as having a row with a friend?

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