Now we drive our cars; in the future, they'll drive us. In between, though, the division of labor will get a little murky, and there could be an unfortunate failure to communicate. Our cars will just have to learn to read us better.
The car that can see a driver's emotional state written on his face could anticipate a bout of road rage and head it off. It could offer advice, or it could just humor the poor, carbon-based life-form. "Yes, that fellow in the red sports car really was rather thoughtless," the car might say, sympathetically. "They really shouldn't let people—I mean, people like him—on the road, should they?"
The facial-recognition part of that scheme is under investigation at the Signals Processing Laboratory of the École Polytechique Fédéral, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Researchers trained the system on photos to identify anger or the closely related emotion disgust, then validated the system by testing it on videos, including many taken inside a moving car (provided by the French auto maker Peugeot Citroën, a collaborator in this research).
There are five other basic emotions that future face-reading systems may tackle. This online test lets you measure your own ability to read these emotions.
The researchers say they still have problems coping with the diverse ways in which different people express an emotion. They propose to have the car engage in on-the-job learning: it would update its database again and again, based on the face of just one person—the driver.
Another problem is how to evaluate faces in real time. That job will require the development of faster algorithms for deconstructing the many combinations of muscular motions on the face. Biometricians recognize nearly 50 key motions of this sort, called "facial action units."
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.