Q&A: The science behind 'friendly fridges'

A researcher explains how a new emotion-classification system is being used to create machines with feelings

ZDNet recently reported on a radical Artificial Intelligence system called EMIR (the Emotional Model for Intelligent Response). This new system will allow software and machines to mimic human emotions, creating devices such as "friendly fridges" or "angry robots". Here ZDNet delves deeper into the subject with two key minds behind the project: Charles Guerin of I & A Research and Dr Albert Mehrabian, of the University of California. We asked the questions from our readers and more. Our first Q&A is with Dr Albert Mehrabian, about his research into psychology which was used in the emotional simulator. Q: Our first question is regarding your research into emotions. How did you collect data? Did it involve zapping university students with electrodes?
A: No, it is not possible to obtain the kind of detailed information that we needed for understanding emotions without resorting to verbal reports. So our challenge was to devise highly sophisticated sets of pre-tested verbal questions that would yield reliable and valid answers about emotions. How did you measure the feelings of test subjects?
I began developing the test items back in 1972 and developed and refined these up until 1998. Basically, subjects were presented with contrasting pairs of emotion terms such that (and here is the key) each pair only differed with respect to (a) pleasure, (b) arousal, or (c) dominance. In this way, subjects were forced to report their emotions on a single dimension at one time. This helped greatly in obtaining detailed and precise answers. People talk about the emotional components of intelligence. Do you consider emotion to be a critical component of intelligence?
Emotion is a critical component of all human and animal function. In fact, emotions are what adults share with infants and animals. Communication about one's emotions and interpretation of emotional signals of others are the very key to human existence. The literature on emotional intelligence... suggests that individuals who are better aware of their emotions and those who are better able to decipher the emotions of others are behaving more intelligently. One way to use my emotion measures to apply them in this arena is to compare a person's interpretation of another's emotional expression to the consensus reports (i.e., interpretations of the same emotion by an average group of peers, as reported using the PAD). Why is your emotional model in three dimensions? What does three dimensional mean in this context?
There are literally hundreds -- and if you choose to be specific enough, in excess of a couple of thousand -- different emotion terms (or labels for human emotions). The challenge to a researcher was to reduce this enormous range of terms to a few that could be studied systematically and experimentally. I drew my inspiration from the work of Charles Osgood who had developed the "semantic differential" technique to describe human reactions to a great variety of stimuli. Osgood has used the dimensions of "evaluation", "activity" and "potency" based on factor analytic findings. Our work with emotions showed that what Osgood had been finding was in fact the substrate (or lowest common denominator) of human reaction to any situation. And, this lowest common denominator is emotion, the very basic way in which humans deal with any situation and before they even begin to verbalise what they are experiencing. Anyway, our studies showed that we needed at least three dimensions for a reasonably complete description of emotions -- we could have used more, of course -- however, adding more dimensions did not significantly improve our ability to describe specific emotions. Three-dimensional means that we regard the three basic dimensions of emotions as constituting a three-dimensional space. Each emotion term, in turn, becomes a single point in this emotion space. Thus, once emotions are mapped into this space, we can quickly see which emotion terms are positioned close to one another in the space (e.g., fear, anxiety, distress) and which emotions are spaced considerably apart (e.g., elation vs. boredom). What is an 'emotion term'?
An emotion term is a verbal label that we use to describe a specific emotion (e.g, tired, sleepy, empowered, vigorous). There are many ways in language to express the subtle nuances of emotion and each word used can be analysed in terms of its basic PAD components. Why are there 259 of them?
There is no specific reason for this except that these seemed to be the most commonly used emotion terms. Take the word "abandoned". This emotion term rated -59 (out of a range of -100 to +100) on pleasure-displeasure, it rated 41 on arousal, and rated -65 on dominance-submissiveness. Thus, "abandoned" is a substantially unpleasant state, it is a moderately high arousal state, and it is a very submissive state. Take the word "belligerent" with ratings of 45, 66, and 35. You can see that the major difference between "abandoned" and "belligerent" is that the former involved submissiveness, where the latter involves dominant. Both, however, are unpleasant and aroused emotional states." Does the makeup of an individual's personality skew their emotional responses in decision making?
Absolutely yes. This is the other area of major research effort for me. I have used the three basic dimensions of emotion to also characterise people and their characteristic emotional reactions (or temperament). Thus, for instance, you can describe people as having "anxious", "bored", "exuberant", "relaxed", or "dependent" temperaments. The reactions of a relaxed person vs. a bored one to the same situation are apt to differ. A relaxed person will typically respond with greater pleasantness and dominance, whereas a bored one with respond with more unpleasantness and more submissiveness. Thus, a relaxed person will appear to be more outgoing and decisive and, generally, will make a better leader. As I have already noted, emotions constitute the lowest substrate of human experience that we share with animals. In my opinion, emotions come first developmentally and ontogenetically. Conceptual functioning is built on emotions and tends to be far more unstable and transient. When you place a person under a great deal of pressure (e.g., as in a marital conflict situation, in a high-tension stock market investment situation... you very quickly wipe away the "façade" of high cognitive development of sophistication and the observant psychologist will readily note the reflex-like emotion-triggered reactions. In the investment situation, for instance, fear may propel many a decision, irrespective of the high level of technical knowledge the person may possess. Are tolerance and self-control components of emotional intelligence?
I think self-control, meaning ability to control one's behaviour that is automatically and unthinkingly triggered by emotions, is a key part of emotional intelligence. Tolerance is somewhat more removed from the subject matter. Yes, I believe you can teach self-control and modelling (that is having subjects observe a "model" exhibit self-control in various situations) can be one way to teach it. Considering your understanding of emotions, does it give you a new insight about your own emotions? Has it affected the way you emote?
My studies of psychology and emotions have definitely helped me understand myself and my reactions and emotions in various life situations. When I take the time to carefully consider my options (for reacting) in a situation, I can of course benefit from this knowledge. However, in most life situations, it is altogether too easy to simply go ahead and respond intuitively and in an unplanned manner. Otherwise, interactions with others tend to become overly stilted, as in a therapist-client situation. What I am saying is that I often take the easy way out and live with the consequences. This makes life more interesting for me. Can people benefit from education on the causes influencing their emotions?
Absolutely yes. I have devoted a tremendous amount of research effort to trying to pinpoint the various ways in which our emotions determine (in positive and negative ways) our behaviours. Examples are my studies of effects of emotions on (a) hunger and food consumption (overeating or loss of appetite), (b) sexual desire and sexual dysfunction. EMIR can have innumerable applications and this will depend on the ingenuity of the people who find a physical situation that they want to infuse with human-like characteristics. The key in any single situation will be to identify the Pleasure-displeasure, Arousal-nonarousal, and Dominance-submissiveness counterparts of emotions in the physical variables. Thus, for instance, an airplane control system that registers very strong winds would be programmed to respond with high arousal and low dominance (submissiveness); a computer program that is extremely complicated and difficult to teach or use would be translated into unpleasant, arousing, and submissiveness-inducing emotional components. You could, for example, apply EMIR in political campaign situations. Each candidate (or even each political slogan or advertisement) can be quantified in terms of its PAD values; my findings that relate human preferences of different combinations of PAD experiences would in turn allow campaign managers to predict the effectiveness or success of various strategies. How complex is the emotional makeup of a given individual?
As I have noted above, each person can be described in terms of his/her characteristic level of pleasure-displeasure, Arousability (or general level of emotionality), and dominance-submissiveness. This would be in sharp contrast to how a poet or a novelist might describe a person; however, in contrast to the latter, it would give us a very powerful set of tools for comparing and studying differences in individual reactions to the same situation. There is a tremendous amount left to learn about our brains and emotions. I think ultimately we will get to the point whereby we will be able to tie the PAD dimensions to variations in brain chemistry. And, we will probably be able to relate temperament differences in PAD to genetic markers. Once the relations of brain chemistry to emotions and the relations of genes to temperament are known, you can imagine the consequences, both good and bad. Dr Albert Mehrabian is the Consulting Editor of the Journal of Psychology, published in North America. Ed Dawson reported from ZDNet Australia.


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