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Cambridge academic's emotionally-intelligent sat-nav
Cambridge rush hour
Being lost and confused while driving can lead to anger and frustration

Most of us have managed to lose our tempers at some point while behind the wheel of our car.

One solution could be a satellite navigation system capable of responding to drivers' emotions.

This is just one of the applications of research by academics at Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory.

"We're trying to develop computer systems which actually understand people's emotions," explained Professor Peter Robinson, who leads the team.

"It's not just what we say but how we say it," continued the professor of computer technology. "We read other people to understand if they're concentrating on what we're saying, if they're bored or interested, confused or understanding.

"The trouble with most computer systems is they ignore these signals. They just carry on relentlessly. A sat-nav is a good example of a computer system which ignores how the driver is feeling."

'Fascinating distractions'

Professor Robinson can see the benefits of a satellite navigation system which could detect the stress felt by a motorist, lost in an unknown city centre, by reading the driver's facial expressions.

"Then we could make a car system that stopped your mobile phone from ringing, maybe even turned the radio off to avoid those fascinating distractions," he continued.

"Maybe even turn the sat-nav off for a bit, and let you go in the wrong direction to allow you to recover your composure and then bring you back in to where you meant to be going."

Professor Robinson believes the next big development in robotics will be in home robot systems.

However, to be useful they have to be strong, and if they are strong they will need to read the environment around them and signal to the people using them.

Satellite navigation system
Would a sat-nav capable of reading drivers' emotions be a help?

That way they cannot do harm.

So his team are carrying out experiments to discover whether people react better to a mechanical system if it has facial expressions that show emotions.

"We've had this rather fancy robotic head built and we can animate it," he said. "It has little motors that actuate around two dozen muscles in the face.

"We've actually found that people find that reassuring. They actually find the conversations they have with the robot more satisfying than they do with one that doesn't show any expressions."


In the meantime we are still not that close to a sat-nav system capable of calming us down when the one-way system in a city centre sends us off in the wrong direction.

"We have actually worked with a car manufacturer on the question of making car systems that detect emotions," said the professor.

"But there are lots of technical problems to do with things like the uneven lighting in the car.

"It's easy to do one thing in the laboratory, rather harder in the car."

Instead, the next breakthrough in emotionally-literate computers could be found in the emergency services' control rooms.

"If we could monitor the operators there we could see if they were getting stressed, if there was too much work," he continued. "And then perhaps realise that you've got to off-load some of the work to some of their colleagues.

"That might actually come before the mass-market systems in cars."

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