Conversations with computers

A computer system that can carry on a discussion with a human being by reacting to signals such as tone of voice and facial expression is under development.

A computer system that can carry on a discussion with a human being by reacting to signals such as tone of voice and facial expression, is being developed by an international team including Queen’s University Belfast.

Known as SEMAINE, the project will build a Sensitive Artificial Listener (SAL) system, which will perceive a human user’s facial expression, gaze, and voice and then engage with the user. When engaging with a human, the SAL will be able to adapt its own performance and pursue different actions, depending on the non-verbal behaviour of the user.

SEMAINE is led by DFKI, the German centre for research on Artificial Intelligence. Other partners are Imperial College, London, the University of Paris 8, the University of Twente in Holland, and the Technical University of Munich.

The European Commission awarded the project a grant of €2.75m after it was ranked first out of 143 bids for medium-sized projects in the area of cognitive systems and robotics.

‘A basic feature of human communication is that it is coloured by emotion. When we talk to another person, the words are carried on an undercurrent of signs that show them what attracts us, what bores us and so on. The fact that computers do not currently do this is one of the main reasons why communicating with them is so unlike interacting with a human. It is also one of the reasons we can find them so frustrating,’ said Prof Roddie Cowie from the School of Psychology, who leads the team at Queen’s.

GRETA – an embodied conversational agent. Looking on are Prof Roddy Cowie of Queen’s and Prof Maja Pantic from the University of Twente in Holland

‘SEMAINE and projects like it will change the way people interact with technology. They mean that you will be talking to your computer in 20 years time.’

SEMAINE follows on from another project, entitled HUMAINE, which was led by Prof Cowie. The HUMAINE Project (Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion) received €4.95m to develop interfaces that let humans use computers in a more natural way.

In 2006, it won the ‘Grand Prize’ for the best Information Society Technology Project website. HUMAINE continues in the form of a world-wide organisation for emotion-oriented computing, the HUMAINE Association (http://emotion-research.net/ ), of which Prof Cowie is president.