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Out of your senses

Science is all about looking beyond what our senses tell us in search of new experiences or ways of interpreting old ideas like the notion that machines will never be sentient – they do what we tell them, nothing more. But if we want them to be helpers in our homes, they need ‘emotional intelligence’, which calls for powerful systems that can sense, understand and respond to our moods and movements. Advances in ‘sensing’ technology are vital to robotics but also other applications like artificial noses for smelling cancer, implants to restore human sight and balance, or robots to ‘sense’ living victims in collapsed buildings. Sensing even comes into augmented reality scenarios, combining what we see and hear with ‘virtual’ input like pop-up avatars who guide us round places. If you think you must be out of your senses to imagine a world like this … you would probably be right!

The maths of emotion

When a raised eyebrow or shoulder shrug can say so much it is hardly surprising that scientists have struggled to get computers and robots to interact with us beyond basic commands. If only computers could express some emotion.

The EU-funded TANGO project set out to render complex paralinguistics into the unemotional language of maths. By analysing the expressions of volunteers and how they convey emotion, the team wants to develop theories and formulas that computers and robots can use to work out the emotions of a person. And likewise, adding gestures like frowns or smiles – expressing happiness, sarcasm or pain – to the faces of robot or game characters makes them more human-like and appealing to people.

Research like this is critical to the development of not only more life-like robots, but ultimately the sort of trusted sentient helpers and robotic friends that science-fiction is good at depicting but real science struggles to replicate.