Review of Affective Computing

By Sloman, Aaron | AI Magazine, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Review of Affective Computing


Sloman, Aaron, AI Magazine


Writing a multidisciplinary book is a risky business. Some experts are likely to be fiercely critical because of omissions or errors. Others with tunnel vision are likely to miss the point. Rosalind Picard, with considerable courage, addresses a broad collection of themes, including the nature of motivation, emotions, and feeling; the detection of emotional and other affective states and processes; the nature of intelligence and the relationships between intelligence and emotions; the physiology of the brain and other aspects of human physiology relevant to affective states; requirements for effective human-computer interfaces in a wide range of situations; wearable devices with a range of sensing and communication functions; philosophical and ethical issues relating to computers of the future; and a brief encounter with theology.

This is a book with a bold vision. Some readers will find it inspiring and mind stretching. Some will find it irritating. Some will have both reactions. It gives many pointers to the vast literature on emotions, including useful recent material, for example, books by LeDoux, Goleman, and Damasio.

The book ranges over themes of varying depth. The main theme concerns the nature of intelligence and the role of emotions in intelligence, which I discuss later after commenting on some of the simpler themes.

Ubiquitous Computing and Sensing

It will increasingly be feasible to install sensors and computing devices in furniture, walls, car seats, driving controls, clothing, jewelry, and even implants; so, it will be possible to have a wide range of sensors, processors, and transmitters constantly monitoring, analyzing, recording, and transmitting information about one's blood pressure, temperature, bloodsugar level, muscular tension, and many other physiological states. Some of these devices, suitably hidden, could also monitor various aspects of the environment, including other people. Thus, even your friends and colleagues will easily be able to record your conversation; your facial expressions; and, perhaps with remote sensors, your muscular tension, temperature, sweating, and so on. Picard believes that such machines can learn to predict our reactions and use such predictions to inform us of risks and opportunities ("You'd really like that film ..."). She argues that such devices will increasingly be able to measure and categorize emotional and other affective states to help us comprehend what is going on in ourselves and others. (The New Scientist [1998] reports on a Japanese device that purports to tell you what a pet or infant is trying to communicate!)

Some people might be alarmed by the prospect of being "spied on" by machines. Although Picard warns about ethical issues, she apparently welcomes the use of emotion detectors in a wide range of contexts and relationships (for example, teacher and pupil). The final chapter, in particular, suggests that computing devices will help us choose our mood music; decide which scenes to record for our photo albums; and find out about exhibitions, plays, and other events likely to suit our tastes. Reactions to this prospect will differ widely. Many will dislike the idea of using remote devices to tell them which mood to expect in their spouse: It will strike them as an improper intrusion. However, there probably are some couples who, having found bedroom ceiling mirrors tame, will relish mutually informative intimate sensors.

If I were a pilot or a bus driver I might accept the right of my passengers to insist on my being wired up to minimize the risk of disasters if I fall asleep at the controls or have a heart attack while in control. However, I would not want a computer linked to such sensors to select music for me, and I have no wish to use such devices, especially hidden devices, to tell me what my wife, my colleagues, or my students are feeling or to inform them of what I am feeling. I'd prefer us all to become more sensitive. …

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