Enter the maze

Blade: the emotional computer

Communicating with computers is clunky to say the least - we even have to go to IT classes to learn how to talk to them. It would be so much easier if they went to school to learn how to talk to us. If computers are to communicate more naturally with us we need to understand more about how humans interact with each other. The most obvious ways that we communicate is through speech - we talk, we listen - but actually our communication is far more subtle than that. People pick up lots of information about our emotions and what we really mean from the expressions and the tone of our voice - not from what we actually say. Zabir, a student at Queen Mary (who went on to work for a Merchant Bank) was interested in this so decided to experiment with these ideas for his final year project. He used a kit called Lego Mindstorm that makes it really easy to build simple robots. The clever stuff comes in because, once built, Mindstorm creations can be programmed with behaviour. The result was Blade.

Blade, named after the Wesley Snipes film, was a robotic face capable of expressing emotion and responding to the tone of the user's voice. Shout at Blade and he would look sad. Talk softly and, even though he could not understand a word of what you said he would start to appear happy again. Why? Because your tone says what you really mean whatever the words - that's why parents talk gobbledegook softly to babies to calm them.

Blade was programmed using a neural network, a computer science model of the way the brain works, so he had a brain similar to ours in some simple ways. Blade learnt how to express emotions very much like children learn - by tuning the connections (his neurons) based on his experience. Zabir spent a lot of time shouting and talking softly to Blade, teaching him what the tone of his voice meant and so how to react. Blade's behaviour wasn't directly programmed, it was the ability to learn that was programmed.

Eventually we had to take Blade apart which was surprisingly sad. He really did seem to be more than a bunch of lego bricks. Something about his very human like expressions pulled on our emotions: the same trick that cartoonists pull with the big eyes of characters they want us to love.

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