Alert – you’re boring your listener

Researchers at MIT have developed a mind-reading machine. OK, so it doesn’t reveal its targets’ innermost thoughts, but it does gauge their emotional state. It’s called an Emotional Social Intelligence Prosthetic (ESP), and despite its overly cutesy acronym, its purpose is serious: It is designed to help autistic people function in society.

Those with autism may be able to interact with people, but often lack the ability to pick up on social cues. This means they can be confusing or irritating or boring, and not realize it. The ESP device, developed by Rana El Kaliouby, Rosalind Pickard and Alea Teeters at MIT Media Lab, uses software developed by El Kaliouby and Peter Robinson at the University of Cambridge to detect whether a subject is agreeing, disagreeing, concentrating, thinking, unsure or interested from physical cues. This is a huge advance over previously available software, which could only detect basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.

The ESP consists of a small video camera attached to a handheld computer running image recognition software and the emotion detection software.

If the program determines, based on its interpretation of the camera’s input, that the wearer’s conversation partner is becoming bored or confused, the handheld triggers a vibrating device, prompting the wearer to modify his or her behaviour.

Researchers hope that users, based on the ESP’s cues, will eventually learn to read the responses on their own.

MIT’s current unit isn’t completely ready for prime time, however. Smaller cameras with high enough resolution to read facial expressions are needed so they can clip unobtrusively onto a pair of glasses, or be hidden in a baseball cap. The software requires a lot of computing power, so may need adjustment to run on a standard handheld, and it still can’t read all relevant cues (such as where the subject’s eyes are focused). And the autistic users have to be trained to look at the person they’re talking to so the technology can do its job.

Nonetheless, it’s useful technology that can be put to use in other areas as well. Consider the potential. Autistic individuals aren’t the only ones lacking the ability to clue in on boredom or frustration.

I know some hard-core geeks who will prattle on at length on some esoteric subject, oblivious to the glazing of their audience’s eyes. With modifications, teachers could use it to gauge their students’ attention level, as could presenters in meetings, and alter their approach to the material if necessary.

Since the software can be programmed to respond to culturally specific cues, it could help people adapt to foreign societies. El Kaliouby has even joked that she could program it to detect flirting.

And mind-reading? Well, if you define it as subconsciously recognizing and understanding non-verbal cues to peoples’ emotional state, then most of us do it every day. ESP aims to help those whose internal wiring can’t quite cope with the task to live normal lives.

Lynn Greiner is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
lynng@ca.inter.net

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