DESIGNING AI WITH A HEART: THE CHALLENGE OF GIVING MACHINES EMOTIONAL AWARENESS

Posted: June 3, 2016 in The Future
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ADVANCES IN EMOTIONAL TECHNOLOGIES ARE WARMING UP HUMAN-ROBOT RELATIONSHIPS, BUT CAN AI EVER FULFILL OUR EMOTIONAL NEEDS?

Science fiction has terrified and entertained us with countless dystopian futures where weak human creators are annihilated by heartless super-intelligences. The solution seems easy enough: give them hearts.

Artificial emotional intelligence or AEI development is gathering momentum and the number of social media companies buying start-ups in the field indicates either true faith in the concept or a reckless enthusiasm. The case for AEI is simple: machines will work better if they understand us. Rather than only complying with commands this would enable them to anticipate our needs, and so be able to carry out delicate tasks autonomously, such as home help, counselling or simply being a friend.

Assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Dr Adam Waytz and Harvard Business School professor Dr Norton explain in the Wall Street Journal that: “When emotional jobs such as social workers and pre-school teachers must be ‘botsourced’, people actually prefer robots that seem capable of conveying at least some degree of human emotion.”

A plethora of intelligent machines already exist but to get them working in our offices and homes we need them to understand and share our feelings. So where do we start?

TEACHING EMOTION

“Building an empathy module is a matter of identifying those characteristics of human communication that machines can use to recognize emotion and then training algorithms to spot them,” says Pascale Fung in Scientific American magazine. According to Fung, creating this empathy module requires three components that can analyse “facial cues, acoustic markers in speech and the content of speech itself to read human emotion and tell the robot how to respond.”

Although generally haphazard, facial scanners will become increasingly specialised and able to spot mood signals, such as a tilting of the head, widening of the eyes, and mouth position. But the really interesting area of development is speech cognition. Fung, a professor of electronic and computer engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has commercialised part of her research by setting up a company called Ivo Technologies that used these principles to produce Moodbox, a ‘robot speaker with a heart’.

Unlike humans who learn through instinct and experience, AIs use machine learning – a process where the algorithms are constantly revised. The more you interact with the Moodbox, the more examples it has of your behaviour, and the better it can respond in the appropriate way.

To create the Moodbox, Fung’s team set up a series of 14 ‘classifiers’ to analyse musical pieces. The classifiers were subjected to thousands of examples of ambient sound so that each one became adept at recognising music in its assigned mood category. Then, algorithms were written to spot non-verbal cues in speech such as speed and tone of voice, which indicate the level of stress. The two stages are matched up to predict what you want to listen to. This uses a vast amount of research to produce a souped up speaker system, but the underlying software is highly sophisticated and indicates the level of progress being made.

Using similar principles is Emoshape’s EmoSPARK infotainment cube – an all-in-one home control system that not only links to your media devices, but keeps you up to date with news and weather, can control the lights and security, and also hold a conversation. To create its eerily named ‘human in a box’, Emoshape says the cube devises an emotional profile graph (EPG) on each user, and claims it is capable of “measuring the emotional responses of multiple people simultaneously”. The housekeeper-entertainer-companion comes with face recognition technology too, so if you are unhappy with its choice of TV show or search results, it will ‘see’ this, recalibrate its responses, and come back to you with a revised response.

According to Emoshape, this EPG data enables the AI to “virtually ‘feel’ senses such as pleasure and pain, and [it] ‘expresses’ those desires according to the user.”

PUTTING LANGUAGE INTO CONTEXT

We don’t always say what we mean, so comprehension is essential to enable AEIs to converse with us. “Once a machine can understand the content of speech, it can compare that content with the way it is delivered,” says Fung. “If a person sighs and says, ‘I’m so glad I have to work all weekend,’ an algorithm can detect the mismatch between the emotion cues and the content of the statement and calculate the probability that the speaker is being sarcastic.”

A great example of language comprehension technology is IBM’s Watson platform. Watson is a cognitive computing tool that mimics how human brains process data. As IBM says, its systems “understand the world in the way that humans do: through senses, learning, and experience.”

To deduce meaning, Watson is first trained to understand a subject, in this case speech, and given a huge breadth of examples to form a knowledge base. Then, with algorithms written to recognise natural speech – including humour, puns and slang – the programme is trained to work with the material it has so it can be recalibrated and refined. Watson can sift through its database, rank the results, and choose the answer according to the greatest likelihood in just seconds.

EMOTIONAL AI

As the expression goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and this rings true for emotional intelligence technology. For instance, the world’s most famous robot, Pepper, is claimed to be the first android with emotions.

Pepper is a humanoid AI designed by Alderaban Robotics to be a ‘kind’ companion. The diminutive and non-threatening robot’s eyes are high-tech camera scanners that examine facial expressions and cross-reference the results with his voice recognition software to identify human emotions. Once he knows how you feel, Pepper will tailor a conversation to you and the more you interact, the more he gets to know what you enjoy. He may change the topic to dispel bad feeling and lighten your mood, play a game, or tell you a joke. Just like a friend.

Peppers are currently employed as customer support assistants for Japan’s telecoms company Softbank so that the public get accustomed to the friendly bots and Pepper learns in an immersive environment. In the spirit of evolution, IBM recently announced that its Watson technology has been integrated into the latest versions, and that Pepper is learning to speak Japanese at Softbank. This technological partnership presents a tour de force of AEI, and IBM hopes Pepper will soon be ready for more challenging roles, “from an in-class teaching assistant to a nursing aide – taking Pepper’s unique physical characteristics, complemented by Watson’s cognitive capabilities, to deliver an enhanced experience.”

“In terms of hands-on interaction, when cognitive capabilities are embedded in robotics, you see people engage and benefit from this technology in new and exciting ways,” says IBM Watson senior vice president Mike Rhodin.

HUMANS AND ROBOTS

Paranoia tempts us into thinking that giving machines emotions is starting the countdown to chaos, but realistically it will make them more effective and versatile. For instance, while EmoSPARK is purely for entertainment and Pepper’s strength is in conversation, one of Alderaban’s NAO robots has been programmed to act like a diabetic toddler by researchers Lola Cañamero and Matthew Lewis at the University of Hertfordshire. Switching the roles of carer and care giver, children look after the bumbling robot Robin in order to help them understand more about their diabetes and how to manage it.

While the uncanny valley says that people are uncomfortable with robots that resemble humans, it is now considered somewhat “overstated” as our relationship with technology has dramatically changed since the theory was put forward in 1978 – after all, we’re unlikely to connect as strongly with a disembodied cube than a robot.

This was clearly visible at a demonstration of Robin, where he tottered in a playpen surrounded by cooing adults. Lewis cradled the robot, stroked his head and said: “It’s impossible not to empathise with him. I wrote the code and I still empathise with him.” Humanisastion will be an important aspect of the wider adoption of AEI, and developers are designing them to mimic our thinking patterns and behaviours, which fires our innate drive to bond.

Our interaction with artificial intelligence has always been a fascinating one; and this is only going to get more entangled, and perhaps weirder too, as AEIs may one day be our co-workers, friends or even, dare I say it, lovers. “It would be premature to say that the age of friendly robots has arrived,” Fung says. “The important thing is that our machines become more human, even if they are flawed. After all, that is how humans work.

http://factor-tech.com/

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