The most advanced robots in the very fine movie I, Robot had the ability to interpret the emotions of the human beings around them. They did it by analyzing the stress patterns in the voices they heard. In phrasing it just that way, the film pays homage to an earlier computer who did just the same thing - the HAL-9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey .

Today, Affective Media Limited in Scotland is working to help computers better understand people in various stages of emotional stress. Affective Media even has an online demo with an animated character named Tetchy the Turtle, who accepts voice samples and analyzes them.


Tetchy, a touchy turtle who responds to emotion. Affective Media

Once you have given Tetchy a four-second voice sample, it works on processing your sample. Eventually, the turtle begins to imitate your emotions, feeding them back to you. 


That fine line between cute and annoying. Affective Media

Dr Christian Jones, the chief executive of Affective Media, puts it this way:

"When you are depressed or sad, the pitch of your voice drops and your speech slows down. When you are angry, the pitch rises and the volume of your voice goes up. We betray our emotions as we talk in dozens of subtle ways. Our recognition system uses 40 of these. It ignores the words you use, and concentrates exclusively on the sound quality of speech. It can tell your emotional state the very first time it hears your voice."

Affective Media is planning for a future in which it will be important that machines are able to understand the different states of their human colleagues. "Soon we will talk to our cars. We will give them voice commands to turn on CD players, heaters and fans," said Jones. "Using emotion recognition, those commands would also show if we are angry, frustrated, or sleepy."

HAL-9000 was sophisticated enough to run all of the mechanical systems of a space ship. HAL was also able to tell whether or not the human astronauts were up to the task of making decisions. Here is the famous exchange between Dave Bowman and the HAL-9000 (as found in the novel) that may presage the future of human-computer interaction: "Hal, switch to manual hibernation control."

"I can tell from your voice harmonics, Dave, that you're badly upset. Why don't you take a stress pill and get some rest?"

"Hal, I am in command of this ship. I order you to release the manual hibernation control."

"I'm sorry, Dave, but in accordance with special subroutine C1435-dash-4, quote, When the crew are dead or incapacitated, the onboard computer must assume control, unquote. I must, therefore, overrule your authority, since you are not in any condition to exercise it intelligently."

"Hal," said Bowman, now speaking with an icy calm. "I am not incapacitated. Unless you obey my instructions, I shall be forced to disconnect you." (Read more about HAL-9000.)

Just as Tetchy the Turtle is being designed to show emotion, science fiction robots have been written that way for years. Read about Marvin the depressed robot from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And you may also appreciate the comments of the robot cab driver from Philip K. Dick's classic short story A Present for Pat from 1952. Read more about Affective Media at Mind what you say - this robot will know how you feel.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction.)