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Mind-Reading Computers Could Help Those With Autism

By Jennifer LeClaire
Jun 27, 2006 8:00 AM PT

British and U.S. scientists are developing an "emotionally aware" computer that can gauge an individual's thoughts by analyzing facial expressions. The technology could have practical applications for people with autism, researchers said.

Mind-Reading Computers Could Help Those With Autism

"People express their mental states all the time through facial expressions, vocal nuances and gestures," said Professor Peter Robinson of the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in London. "We have built this ability into computers to make them emotionally aware."

Theory of the Mind

The ability to determine an individual's mental state based on behavior and then use that information to guide one's actions or predict those of others, is known as the "theory of the mind." This is not a new field. It has been around since the 1970s, but it has recently gained attention in light of the needs of people with autism, who are thought to be "mind-blind." That is, they find it difficult to interpret others' emotions and feelings from facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.

Robinson and his colleague, Rana el Kaliouby from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, based their computer program on the latest research in the theory of mind by Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge. Baron-Cohen's research provided them with a taxonomy of facial expressions and the emotions they represent.

"Machine versus people testing of this system has shown the computer to be as accurate as the top 6 percent of people. But would we want computers that can react to our emotions? Such systems do raise ethical issues," Robinson said. "Imagine a computer that could pick the right emotional moment to try to sell you something."

Autism Applications

There are, however, applications with clear benefits, including an emotional hearing aid to assist people with autism, usability testing for software, feedback for online teaching, and informing the animation of cartoon figures, Robinson noted.

The duo has been working since 2004 on a wearable system that helps people with Autism Spectrum Conditions and Asperger Syndrome with emotional-social understanding and mind reading functions. El Kaliouby is currently implementing the first prototype of the system at MIT's Media Lab.

Stimulating Appropriate Responses

Mary Bellis Waller, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and scientist at the Center for Addiction and Behavior Studies, is cheering on the researchers. Bellis has worked with autistic children and adults in her practice and is encouraged by progressive technologies designed to help autistics live a more normal life.

"Whatever helps autistics develop an awareness and sensitivity -- and appropriate responses -- to emotional cues, should be done," Waller told TechNewsWorld. "And from all the research showing how plastic the brain is, the more anybody -- including autistic people -- practices appropriate responses, the better they get at it, the more natural it becomes to 'act normal.'"


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