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Emotional Computers

Analysing emotions could lead to computers who show fear or joy.

Dr Katrin Hille

The words "computer" and "emotion" are not often mixed -- on the one side, there is the computer, the cold-hearted calculator; on the other, there are the warm human experiences of emotions. The term "computer emotion" seems to be a contradiction. But computers can do more than add numbers -- they can do anything that can be defined exactly, ranging from simple calculations to the development of artificial brains in artificial bodies.

But how do you define emotions exactly? P.T. Young in the Handbook of General Psychology stated that "Almost everyone except the psychologist knows what an emotion is". If psychologists don't know, how can you put emotions into a computer programme?

Let us look at emotions as experienced by real people in real life. Picture a holiday on the West Coast. For hours, a new Valiant towing a caravan motors over narrow winding roads. Suddenly, a truck comes around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road. The driver hits the brakes, turns the steering wheel. The Valiant ends up on the wrong side of the road on the edge of a steep cliff.

This is a situation that would frighten everyone, some more, some less; there are similarities in the behaviour of all frightened people. No matter what triggered the fear and what actions are carried out to avoid the threat, the behaviour in such emergencies is similar:

  • it is fast (we act fast -- we feel a sense of being supercharged)
  • it is pure action rather than information pickup (we might not do the best thing but we do something because the situation will be worse otherwise)
  • it is non-precise (slips are more likely to happen)
  • it is like being blinkered (we don't notice the scenery -- we feel a narrowing of senses)
  • it interrupts the train of ongoing action (whatever was being done stops while the threat is avoided)
  • it is persistent (until the threat is gone)

Think about it. Imagine how you would react. Would your behaviour fit the description above?

Picture a girl left by her partner for another lover. It was unexpected. Now she sits at home on her own:

"I was just moping around all day reading books, head banging, like for a whole day listening to music... It's like he'd sort of died. It just freaked me; I just, I just moped around I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to go anywhere. Didn't ever laugh." (This is taken from interviews on emotion collected by Strongman and Kemp.)

Behaviour when experiencing sadness looks quite different from the fear emergency reaction. When we are sad, all that we do happens slowly, we are lost in thoughts. When sad, we vividly remember tiny details, but we do not pay attention to what is happening around us. We do not bother to eat, to work, to enjoy life.

Remember the last time you felt really sad, or great joy. Do you remember your thoughts and behaviour? People have told us about their experience of excitement. Unlike fear or sadness, they notice much that happens around them.

Styles of Behaviour

Emotions give behaviour its specific style. Fear makes behaviour fast. Sadness makes it slow. Fear turns behaviour outwards (people achieve). Sadness turns the behaviour inwards (people think). Sadness and fear narrow our focus. Joy broadens the senses.

Emotion is more than just behaviour. But we can neglect all that for putting emotion into a computer. Emotion as a style of behaviour seems to be sufficient for an emotional computer.

Imagine a group of Sojourner robot explorers on Mars. Computer programmes function as the Sojourner's brains, determining the actions and styles of behaviour.

Imagine a fear situation. A sandstorm is coming. threatening to blow tiny sand grains into the joints and hinges of the Sojourner's body. What a truck coming around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road is for a human being, a sudden sandstorm might be for a Sojourner.

Just as a human being acts, the Sojourner would try to get away rather than gain information. The Sojourner would not try to figure out exactly how much time it has to get away. It would act quickly, speeding up its actions. As many resources as possible would be used for getting "home".

Just as a human being would act non-precisely, the Sojourner is likely to start with spinning wheels or it might overlook a hole in its path. Just as human beings would not notice irrelevant details, the Sojourner would not pay attention to today's colourful Martian sunset. Just as human beings interrupt their train of actions, the Sojourner would not collect any more interesting stones or take them back to the lab for analysing. Just as human beings persist in trying to escape the threat, the Sojourner would run until it reaches shelter. It would not stop for small talk with its Sojourner mates that are trying to get away as well.

Emotion then, can be seen as a special style of behaviour. With this approach, we could put emotion into a computer programme. "Computer emotion" would no longer be a contradiction and a computer programme could behave emotionally.

Katrin Hille is a post-doctoral fellow in Canterbury's Psychology Department.