Future computers will feel your pain

Most, if not all, computer users have at least occasionally felt the urge to boot their machines in a literal way, with a good, swift kick or a toss through the nearest window. Those emotional outbursts might be tempered by hurling verbal insults instead, but within the next decade, computers will be able to feel such anguish and adjust to soothe the moods of irate users.

While the practical applications for such intuitive machines might not seem readily apparent -- apart from lowering blood pressure of computer users -- researchers and academics speaking here today explained the ramifications of emotionally responsive computers during a day-long symposium sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab.

"Affective computing", or machines with emotional intelligence, will be built within the next five to 10 years, researchers said. The key to successfully integrating affective computing into daily life is to allow users to maintain control over their computers rather than vice versa, said Rosalind Picard, an associate professor at the Media Lab.

"I think affective computing will succeed best when it's subtle," she said.

Subtlety aside, some applications for affective computing could be potentially life saving.

One research project uses computers in cars to measure the stress levels of drivers by tracking changes in heart rates and other indicators of inner turmoil. Such applications could in the future help cut off episodes of so-called "road rage," a phenomenon that occurs when harried drivers feel so overwrought because of bad traffic conditions or lack of driving skills on the part of others on the road that they react violently. In the US drivers have been run off roads, shot at (and killed), cursed and otherwise threatened by such incidents.

On a more moderate scale, affective computing eventually will be used to make computers respond to human interaction, making it less frustrating, and perhaps easier, to use computers, researchers said.

In one demonstration today, a computer user became increasingly frustrated when an automatic word correcting function would not allow the user to type the name "Mr. Abotu", insisting on changing the name to "Mr. About". Using a "squeeze mouse" that can assess pressure, and therefore user angst, a computer could "learn" the habits of its user and realise the need to turn off the function while the letter is being written.

Beyond the benefits to users, affective computing and related research also could lead to a boon for businesses engaged in e-commerce. Research has found that various images in particular lead to emotional arousal in humans. Pictures of snakes, spiders and guns provoke fear, while photographs of naked people or people having sex lead to arousal as it might more traditionally be defined.

But two images used in the lab lead to the greatest state of arousal: a photograph of piles of US currency and gold bullion. This sort of finding has particular ramifications for companies that transact e-commerce, according to Byron Reeves, a professor and director of the Institute for Communication Research at Stanford University in California.

"We've got open-heart surgery and some really kinky sex, and this is just about as arousing," he said of the images used in the Stanford lab.

The interactive nature of online shopping and stock-trading sites that are designed with that in mind could make for highly pleasurable transactions.

"Commerce is arousing," Reeves said.

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