Could A Her-Style Computer Be On Its Way?

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Computer_FeelingsIllustrated By Ly Ngo.
In the movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely, borderline pathetic, but really very sweet human who is just as surprised as we are when he falls in love with his computer's operating system. And, the crazy part is, we can't really blame him. His OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is sensitive and candid and has an almost-creepy ability to anticipate his every emotional need.

Okay, so this story takes place in an alternate universe presumably several decades in the future, where virtual reality is in every living room (and everyone in Los Angeles takes public transportation!). But, it seems the technology isn't really as far off as you might think. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego suggests computers are already so advanced that they're better at reading our emotions than we are.

In the study, published in the journal Current Biology, 150 participants were shown videos of people's faces as they either dunked their arms in a bucket of ice water or pretended to do so. The study's subjects had to guess whether each person was actually in pain or not. The results? Pretty abysmal — the subjects only guessed correctly about 52% of the time, which reflects a number of studies that estimate that humans are really terrible at spotting liars.

Next, the researchers showed the same videos to computers outfitted with special software designed to recognize human emotion. Surprisingly (or not?), the computers did much better than the people, correctly differentiating between the fakers and the ice dunkers about 85% of the time.

According to the study's authors, this is a pretty big deal — and it marks a turning point in the development of facial-recognition software. The key to the computers' success is their recently acquired ability to determine exactly which muscle groups are being used when someone makes a facial expression: Apparently, we use a different set of muscles when we're trying to make a particular face from the muscles that are activated when we're genuinely happy, frightened, or in pain.

When you think about it, the craziest part of Her was that the operating systems developed their own feelings — they were sensitive, emotionally intelligent creatures that were a lot like their human counterparts. Until now, of course, computers have been "smarter" than humans; what really separated us from them was that we have emotion, something we thought couldn't be programmed. But, if computers are better at reading emotion than we are, what does it mean to be human? Is it just a function of being confused about how we (and others) feel? That's it — we officially need a Her sequel to process all of this. Paging Spike Jonze... (Pacific Standard)