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Your iPhone gets emotional

by Angela Herring

The 2013 film Her tells the story of a lonely man falling in love with his mobile phone’s arti­fi­cially intel­li­gent oper­ating system. It recently earned a Golden Globe for Best Screen­play and received five Oscar nom­i­na­tions, including Best Picture.

The movie isn’t a rumi­na­tion on the future but rather on the present, according to Andrew Zolli, curator and exec­u­tive director at Poptech, a global com­mu­nity of inno­va­tors working together to effect change. Speaking at North­eastern on Friday, Zolli explained that the notion of forming emo­tional rela­tion­ships through and with our tech­nolo­gies has only recently become “a plau­sible premise for a cul­tural dialogue.”

“This film could not be made at any other time. It only could be made now,” Zolli said.

Zolli’s talk to a packed audi­ence at the Raytheon Amphithe­ater kicked off “New Vistas in Emo­tion and Tech­nology,” the fourth event in a series hosted by North­eastern University’s Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute. It brought together researchers from North­eastern and beyond to engage in the broader dia­logue that Her took to the silver screen.

In a keynote address, Face­book engi­neering director Arturo Bejar dis­cussed how the multi-​​billion user online social net­work is lever­aging affec­tive sci­ence to deliver a more valu­able product. For instance, his team’s inten­sive field research yielded a new way for young users to report cyber­bul­lying and pro­vide useful resources to help deal with the problem offline.

In opening remarks, Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology and a co-​​director of the Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute, said the event would high­light “ways that we can bridge affec­tive sci­ence and tech­no­log­ical advance­ment to the bet­ter­ment of both acad­emia and sci­en­tific inter­ests in industry.” For, as speakers throughout the day explained, not only is emo­tion being injected into our oper­ating sys­tems, our oper­ating sys­tems are rec­i­p­ro­cating with new ways for human indi­vid­uals to engage with one another. Simul­ta­ne­ously, other new tech­nolo­gies are allowing researchers to probe the depths of emo­tion in novel ways.

Some of those tech­nolo­gies were on dis­play during an inter­ac­tive demo ses­sion, in which vis­i­tors could try out ambu­la­tory brain imaging caps, mobile eye-​​tracking devices, and video games that pay close atten­tion to the emo­tions and affec­tive real­i­ties of both players and vir­tual characters.

The minds behind most of these projects dis­cussed their research throughout the day during panel dis­cus­sions with experts from a range of dis­ci­plines including game design, psy­chology, and health sciences.

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Stacy Marsella, who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Sci­ence, pre­sented his work on devel­oping more real­istic vir­tual humans. His team is cre­ating algo­rithms that detect emo­tion in snip­pets of text and speech and use that infor­ma­tion to reli­ably confer facial expres­sions and hand ges­tures to com­put­er­ized characters.

Matthew Goodwin, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor of health sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, dis­cussed how his lab is embed­ding tech­nolo­gies into the homes and class­rooms of chil­dren with autism. This is of par­tic­ular impor­tance in this area of research, since the tra­di­tional exper­i­mental envi­ron­ment can be unset­tling to sub­jects and thus skew results.

North­eastern psy­chology pro­fessor David DeSteno showed how his team is using robots to delve into how humans relate to one another in ways never before pos­sible. DeSteno is also co-​​director of the ASI and helped orga­nize the conference.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, said projects such as these exem­plify Northeastern’s focus on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, use-​​inspired research that addresses soci­etal chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in the areas of health, secu­rity, and sus­tain­ability. Bringing together emo­tion sci­ence and tech­no­log­ical advance­ments, he said, “epit­o­mizes one of things we at North­eastern like to do.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on February 4, 2014.

Photo of Facebook’s Arturo Bejar courtesy Jeff Cutler

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