Smile for the Nice Machine

We're used to judging what's on someone's mind by subliminally "reading" his or her facial expressions. "It's written all over your face," we'll say when we surmise that someone is anxious or proud or envious or bored. Now, imagine a machine with the same subtle ability. According to a report by the BBC today, researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on just that.

At next week's Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, Cambridge scientists, along with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will display an "emotionally aware" computer system that attempts to analyze what's going on in your mind by studying what's going on on your face. And they are asking exhibit visitors to drop by to help them by letting the system evaluate their mental states.

Using a camera to scan a human face, the system's computer is programmed to measure 24 key facial feature points and 20 of their corresponding movements, according to its creators. Its software then attempts to analyze the combinations of these and render an analysis. "The system can already cope with the variation in people's facial composition," Peter Robinson, professor of computer technology at Cambridge, told the news service. "However, there are small variations in the way people express the same emotion."

Robinson's team foresees applications for a perfected system in a variety of areas, from Web-based marketing to in-car driver assistance, as well as personal versions for aiding persons with problems recognizing emotional cues, such as those with autism. Robinson said the team had already been approached by a "big car company" to investigate the system's use in certain driving situations.

As promised in a recent posting, we're occasionally focusing on developments in machine intelligence as a provocative thread for deliberation and discussion. Please let us know what you think about the topic (and be sure to smile when you post a comment).

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