This post is part of a blog series with Young Scientists ahead of the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015, which takes place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September. In this blog, Björn Schuller, Chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems, University of Passau, answers questions on emotionally intelligent computers and the future of human-machine interaction. 

Why should we be excited by emotionally intelligent computers?

Firstly, it will lead to a whole new era of interaction between humans and machines. It will take media search to a whole new level and offer exciting new opportunities in fields such as health diagnostics.

Take speech analysis, for example: these days, computers can already “hear” an amazing range of attributes from a person’s voice, even over the phone. To give examples from the iHEARu project I am working on: age, height, personality, emotional state, diet and alcohol levels can all be detected. So can depression, autism and Parkinson’s disease. Even the amount of eye contact a person gives, their heart rate and shape of their face can be determined to some degree. Computers can analyse conversations to grasp conflict and identify relationships between individuals, such as in the case of a mother speaking to her child.

Secondly, the development is reaching the stage where a whole new range of applications is opening up and there is massive commercial potential. A computer can now analyse the emotional behaviour of children with autism, for example, and offer corrective feedback in a playful way. This is interesting, as the computer is not only recognizing emotions but advising people on how to express them. Computers can now carry out reputation analysis for businesses, politicians and market researchers simply by interpreting people’s unspoken sentiments.

Isn’t it a little scary, though, having computers that are able to hear and understand you – will they be able to read your mind?

In fact, “mind reading” is developing at a rapid pace, though the computers that do it have mostly been working with cooperative partners. As for computers hearing our speech, the good news is that we still have control of our voices; we usually choose what to say and when, and we know how to hide our feelings. It will be interesting to see if one day, when emotionally intelligent computer systems are part of our everyday lives, we have to be taught how to talk to them, just as we are taught how to speak to the public.

What is your ultimate goal when it comes to this research?

My first aim is for computers to possess a similar level of emotional and social intelligence as people. Ultimately, though, things might go further. In some tasks, such as sensing how inebriated a speaker is, computers are already partially outperforming humans.

What do you hope to achieve from your participation at AMNC?

I very much hope to raise interest in and enthusiasm for my field of research. At the same time, I am excited about sharing ideas and views with, and being inspired by, top individuals from other fields and domains in a unique and extraordinary environment of exchange.

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Author: Björn Schuller is Chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems, University of Passau, and is a World Economic Forum Young Scientist. He will be participating at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, which is taking place in Dalian, China, 9-11 September

Image: A visitor interacts with “The Blind Robot” from Singapore during the “Robot Ball” scientific exhibition in Moscow May 17, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin