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HAL Knows What You’ve Been Thinking

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Michael A. Greenwood

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey might not be so fictional after all.

In the movie, the HAL 9000 supercomputer interacts with a team on a space mission as though it is a fellow member of the crew. It carries on conversations and can detect even subtle changes in tone and emotion. HAL represents the peak of artificial intelligence.

Steps toward the development of a real-word HAL may be under way in Massachusetts, where techniques that could enable a computer to monitor and respond to a user’s emotional state — frustration, boredom, anxiety — are being created.

But this computer is not being developed for interplanetary space travel. Its mission is much simpler: to improve a user’s work output and to reduce stress.

Researchers at Tufts University in Medford used a technique known as functional near-infrared spectroscopy to measure hemoglobin concentration and tissue oxygenation levels in the brain as the user performed tasks that ranged from simple to complex. Worn as a headband, the device sends near-IR light through the forehead — to a depth of 2 to 3 cm — where it interacts with the brain’s frontal lobe. Some of the light is absorbed, while the remaining light is reflected to the functional near-IR spectroscopy sensors. Blood flow changes to compensate the area of the brain that is being used.

Acquiring accurate measurements of a user’s mental state would be valuable in gauging human-computer interaction for the evaluation of interfaces and for real-time input to computer systems, the researchers said.

Now all they have to do is teach the computer to read lips.

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2007
hemoglobin concentrationLighter Sidenear-infrared spectroscopySensors & DetectorsTufts University

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