Computers that don't just talk at us, but communicate with us. Programs that recognize human emotions and
respond accordingly. An electronic device that knows the face of its
owner. Sound like science fiction?
Birmingham University researcher Lijun Yin wants to make it a reality.
A Familiar Face
Yin poses with an example of his current project.For some time now, Yin, a computer scientist, has been working on a huge innovation in his field. He's not content with the typical mouse and keyboard interface; he wants something that goes beyond that. His vision? Someday, we should be able to sit down at our computer and simply...talk to it. Instead of having to type in commands, we can speak and have it do what we desire. Instead of clicking on a website link, the computer will detect from our body language that we desire to look at it, and open it for us.
"“Our research in computer graphics and computer vision tries to make
using computers easier,” he says. “Can we find a more comfortable,
intuitive and intelligent way to use the computer? It should feel like
you’re talking to a friend. This could also help disabled people use
computers the way everyone else does.”(Discover-E)
But that's not the only area of computer use that Yin's looking to advance. Has your computer ever asked if you're alright?
In the future, that might just happen. It's a difficult goal to achieve, though. See, computers work in definites- their language is called binary for a reason. Humans...don't. Not entirely. Yin hopes, however, to determine and record facial elements shared by each of the most common human emotions. To this end, he's brought Birmingham psychologist Peter Gerhardstein onto the project.
He originally wanted Gerhardstein's help in determining how his developing invention could help children with autism learn to recognize human facial patterns using advanced three dimensional imaging software.
But then something occurred to him.
Here's where it gets really exciting. Imagine, if you will, a computer that could recognize and respond to human emotions. Computers are, at their core, thinking machines. Really, it's all they do. But imagine, if you will, a computer that could also feel. An electronic device that could not only process data, but understand that data in a way that was previously impossible. The potential for this technology is virtually endless.
“We want not only to create a virtual-person model, we want to
understand a real person’s emotions and feelings,” Yin says. “We want
the computer to be able to understand how you feel, too. That’s hard,
even harder than my other work.”(Discover-E)
Just think about it. A computer that could detect when someone was lying. A computer that could tell when someone was in pain. A computer that could ask why. This computer wouldn't just be a piece of hardware, it wouldn't just be a possession. This computer could actually have the potential to be something more: a friend.
"Why". That word doesn't really have much meaning for programs right now, does it? Human beings are, as of today-with the exceptions of a few higher primates- the only creatures on the planet who ask the question. If a computer were to ask, to actually ask...
A New Frontier
Okay, toHonda's Asimo: Probably one of the best known robots out there. be fair, machines with humanlike thought and emotion aren't really anything new. But the keyword there is humanlike; a very nebulous term. Most robots, though they've advanced in leaps and bounds, aren't quite at the level that they can be truly considered human simulations. Not yet.
Saya and Asimo
are two examples which immediately come to mind when one thinks of humanlike robots.The latter, in particular, employs facial recognition technology. It can recognize and register up to ten familiar faces, and refer to these faces by name.
The thing is, neither of them actually employ any sort of emotional recognition technology. Neither of them can truly learn, aside from a few simple algorithms. Saya can display emotion, but when it comes to picking it up in others, she kind of falls short. Her developer has actually cautioned people against getting too excited about her hopes up too high for its Leonardo Da Vinci: The man who practically coined the term "Ahead of his time"possibilities. "'The robot has no intelligence. It has no ability to learn. It has no identity,' he said. 'It is just a tool.'". (Rising Sun of Nihon)
With Yin's new technology, not only could we have computers capable of understanding human emotion, we could put it to use in creating the first true android. A robot that thinks, learns, and feels. A machine with human thought and emotion. It's a dream humanity's had ever since Da Vinci first dreamed of the concept in the late 1400s. And now, we stand on the cusp of its realization.
And as always, I've just gotta say- think about the eventual applications for gaming. Roleplaying games would be taken to a whole new level of immersion, as your character met with people so realistic as to seem like actual human beings. War games would gain an entirely new avenue of challenge pitting the players against opponents that were truly capable of learning from and reacting to the player.
It's like something out of a science fiction novel. Phillip K. Dick would love this stuff, if he were still around.
Yin's not getting too far ahead of hiIf you're a ne'erdowell, this could eventually pick you out of a crowd- all on its own.mself with his project. He's excited about it, yes, but he also understands that there are limits to what he can do with it. He's dreaming big, but at the same time, he's looking at the smaller picture: low-resolution cameras able to pick someone out of a crowd, for example. It's going to be tough- Yin's lab has about six cameras set up at various angles. He would have to compress this technology into a single camera. A tall order, indeed. But Yin's not getting discouraged.
It looks to me like he's going to start small. Once he's got the basics of the technology downpat, he'll advance to greater and greater applications.
Something like true artificial intelligence is probably still a long way off. As complex as computers are, they're only now even coming close to the sheer intricacy of the human brain. But this technology represents a great leap forward in our quest for a true robotic brain. And with that, I leave you with a quote from one of the penultimate writers of science fiction-fiction which, today, seems ever closer to fact:
"It is change, continuing change, inevitable change,
that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can
be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it
is, but the world as it will be."
- Isaac Asimov