Talking to machines is now second nature, providing we remember to say “Alexa” or “Hey, Siri” before framing our questions. We can already talk to an Apple Watch, even without saying the magic wake word, if we raise the timepiece to our mouths first. There will be more updates revealed in the upcoming watchOS 6 operating software, which will be revealed on June 3 at WWDC.
Now, Bloomberg is reporting on the possibility of a new device from Amazon which will understand human emotions.
According to the patents and internal documents, the device will be wrist-wearable and voice-activated. The Alexa team is involved, apparently, as are people behind the Fire phone and Echo speakers.
But while other devices listen to the words spoken and react accordingly, telling you the time or the latest soccer score or whatever, this will respond to what it can read from your voice.
Not text comprehension, then, but subtext.
Well, that could be remarkable. I mean, speaking as someone who has deployed sarcasm repeatedly in my life and been misunderstood regularly, I’m amazed at the prospect that my watch could understand this when human beings haven’t. Perhaps the gadget could even tap me on the wrist and quietly say, “Not now, it’s not funny”.
Amazon’s intentions seem to sit somewhere between benign and creepy. Bloomberg says:
A U.S. patent filed in 2017 describes a system in which voice software uses analysis of vocal patterns to determine how a user is feeling, discerning among “joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom, stress, or other emotional states.” The patent, made public last year, suggests Amazon could use knowledge of a user’s emotions to recommend products or otherwise tailor responses.
A diagram in the patent filing says the technology can detect an abnormal emotional condition and shows a sniffling woman telling Alexa she’s hungry. The digital assistant, picking up that she has a cold, asks the woman if she would like a recipe for chicken soup.
Well, that seems a clever way to go, to be able to anticipate a user’s needs – something every good human personal assistant does as he or she gets to know the habits of their employer. But it could just as easily be unsettling at the same time as impressive.
The fact that the team that delivered the Amazon Fire phone is an indication that the company is eager to break into new kinds of device. We’ve already heard rumors of smart in-ear headphones with Alexa built in.
The possibility of a machine understanding human emotions is certainly intriguing. After all, many humans miss the subtleties of interaction, so perhaps the gadget can tip us off.
Maybe Amazon’s gadget – if it ever reaches fruition, which is never certain at this stage of rumored plans – could help us when we’re not sure exactly how we’re feeling. Or put us right when we’re fooling ourselves: “What do you mean you feel fine? You’re deep-down miserable, I’d say.” It seems the device will be able to help advise us on how to interact better with others.
On the other hand, there will be many Echo and HomePod users, for instance, who feel that given the number of times their smart speakers think they’ve heard a wake word when they haven’t and leapt in with an unwanted comment, that smart listening has some way to go yet.