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What is Affective Computing?

By M. Rosario
Updated May 16, 2024
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Affective computing is the science of studying how machines distinguish and respond to human emotions. It aims to improve interaction between humans and computers by building machines that can react and adjust to changes in the user’s affect based on cues that the computer interprets.

The word “affect” in the context of affective computing refers to a person’s current state. It includes emotions, mood and how a person is responding to a stimulus. In this respect, various scientific disciplines are generally required to fully understand and implement the affective computing technology. Computer science, linguistics, robotics, sociology and psychology are some disciplines that are covered by affective computing.

Aside from determining the user’s current state, affective computing also aims to create machines that have the capability to influence the user’s affect. This can be particularly valuable in situations where constant alertness is needed. An example of this is a car that can detect when a driver is sleepy or intoxicated. It does this by tracking yawning frequency, eye and head movement and other driving behavior. It then responds by flashing a warning light, emitting a loud sound or tugging at the seatbelt.

The ability to accurately interpret verbal and non-verbal cues is the main barrier to affective computing. Computers generally detect psychological and physiological cues through sensors that need to be connected to the user. As technology progresses, it allows for more non-intrusive methods of data gathering. Video cameras can track facial expression and body language and microphones can record tone of voice. Sensors on the mouse and keyboard can measure changes in skin temperature and conductivity.

Another objective of affective computing is to create machines that can imitate emotions. In programming computers that express emotion, scientists employ affect control theory. This means that the computer’s emotion must correspond to the situation. To accomplish this, researchers use a database of affects contained in an emotion markup language.

There are commercial uses for affective marketing. Customer service centers can automatically screen for potentially irate customers based on their voice and transfer them to a specially trained representative. Advertisements that employ affective design can elicit affects that can be satisfied by the product being sold.

In computer games, affective computing enables games to adjust depending on the player’s skill level. Non-player characters are able to personalize responses, leading to a more interactive experience. The game’s artificial intelligence can increase the difficulty level if it senses that the player finds the game too easy. Conversely, affective gaming can give more power-ups or bonuses if it thinks that the player is becoming frustrated.

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