Jun 19, 2024

Can artificial intelligence understand human feelings? Image from SFU’s ROSIE Lab.

Joyful banter, poking, laughing, exclamations, and puppy dog eyes.

Emotions colour our lives every day, and I grew up in a typical Canadian-Filipino household with the frank expressiveness and joking nature we're known for. A few decades later, like many others, I live in a new type of household: one that's ruled by technology, with Netflix, screens, and even a voice-enabled Amazon Alexa, a top product last Christmas. And as a mother-to-be, I sometimes wonder about how my kids will grow up in this new era, interacting with machines.

 Devices like Amazon Echo's Alexa, Siri and OK Google are the opposite of expressive. They speak the same way each time, in a monotone voice, and only leave a few seconds to complete your sentence. These "artificially intelligent" gadgets lack expression, and they, in turn, don't understand our expressivity. If this is how kids learn to interact, will they become like robots in the future? Are we already on our way there?

I'm a professor in Computing Science at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and my research is about making robots and other interactive agents more sociable and empathetic. I want to bring devices like Alexa and the incoming generation of interactive robots closer to humanity, rather than forcing us to act more like robots. It's fascinating, really: we may giggle with delight or grunt with dissatisfaction -- can we make our technology understand these expressions we produce every day?

Towards this goal, my research group at SFU called the "ROSIE" Lab (named after the sassy robot on the Jetsons), works on a field called affective computing. “Affect” refers to anything relating to emotions, feelings and moods. This budding field requires knowledge of humans themselves, our behaviours and psychology, as well as how to translate these concepts into algorithms that a computer can understand.

These problems, along with an array of others, are the bread and butter of artificial intelligence specialists like myself. Artificial intelligence (AI) stems from the root word intelligence and therefore aims to understand the human brain towards creating this next-gen technology. According to Monster.com, this field is budding and the demand for AI skills has grown 4.5 times since 2013. In the U.S., the median salary for Data Scientists, Senior Data Scientists, Artificial Intelligence Consultants and Machine Learning Managers is $127,000 per year.

It's an exciting time for artificial intelligence, a field that encompasses much more than the area of affective computing. For that reason, last year, I launched Invent the Future, a summer enrichment program for girls in Grades 10 and 11 to learn artificial intelligence and computer science at SFU. Through this, I hope to find those who are passionate in making technology mirror ourselves as humans, reflecting the joy and expressivity we already are experts at.

Do you know a girl interested in technology? Applications for Invent the Future, for Grade 10 and 11 girls from all backgrounds, are now open. Bursaries are available, and no prior experience is necessary. http://www.sfu.ca/computing/inventthefuture

Dr. Angelica Lim is an Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) School of Computing Science. She is the lead AI roboticist at SFU’s ROSIE Lab that works on building robots that interact naturally and seamlessly with humans, developing smart AI software to help robots understand what humans do, think, feel and mean and creating new AI algorithms and implementing models of the human mind based on neuroscience, psychology and developmental science. ROSIE stands for Robots with Social Intelligence and Empathy. The lab is inspired by Rosie, a helper robot from the Jetsons TV show who assisted in daily tasks as well as kept up people's spirits with her sassy personality. In 2018, Forbes Magazine named Dr. Lim as one of the “5 People Building Our AI Future”.

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