Thursday, July 17, 2014

Understanding our love/hate relationship with social networks

Have you ever hesitated before posting your good news on Facebook? Are you worried it would feel like bragging? And the other way around—why do some updates make us frown with jealousy, while some posts make us feel genuinely happy and truly 'like' it?

The thing is, every single day we share our emotions—those smiles, happy voices and hugs which spread our joy with others.

This is called emotional contagion, and it's why people say "I'm so happy for you!" They literally have become happy, because you're happy! How kind of you to share! :D

The problem is, communication through simple text is the worst way to share our happiness (although it works to some extent.)

All the people get from a typical post is the information, like "I got a new job as lead Awesome Person at Disneyland." You get all the cognitive information, but none of the emotional information. And that's a cause for jealousy—they're happy, I'm not, and that's lame :(

How can we share our happiness with our friends online, so they get to be happy with us?

Here are some examples and tips (illustrations made with private posts for obvious reasons).


Well, I got the information across. But this makes me want to hit myself in the face.


Add punctuation or smileys to add back in the tone of your voice. We pretty much all do this.

Use the "I'm feeling" feature of Facebook to share your emotion. You activate the concept of feeling in the reader, and they try to understand what that means by simulating it in their brains. It's a kind of empathy.


Add a photo, or an animated gif [Facebook, please implement this!]. This is the most direct way to literally share happiness (through mirror neurons) with your friends.

In general, you want to add back in all the information you would convey if you met your friends in person: tone of voice (use punctuation), face (use smileys or the "I'm feeling" feature), body (add a photo or Japanese style emoticon \o/), movement (add an animated gif).

This is why the Japanese animated emoji stickers in Line, and recently in Facebook messages, are so popular. In my ideal world, you could share your happiness with sound too, just like music helps us feel.

So share your joy! Do some virtual jumping up and down! And share your news with your friends, like sharing a hot cup of tea or yummy slice of cake.

It's not you, it's the technology. So let's make the best of it :) Hope this post was helpful for you.

P.S. I'm also writing this as a poke to us designers of technology. Let's make it easier to share information as well as feelings! It's awkward to have to think about sharing our feelings, let's just make it natural :D

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Masayoshi Son's other reason for making emotional robots

Last week, SoftBank unveiled the Pepper emotional robot to the world, to much surprise. But did you know that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son already hinted to his dream to build robots with artificial intelligence and emotions, way back in 2010?

From SoftBank's "Next 30-Year Vision" 2010
In his 30-year vision, Son described his view of the future, and justified the need for artificial emotions. He imagined that the future would bring brain-like computers that would learn by themselves. Instead of being pre-programmed, these computers would have that special capacity to learn constantly, an ability that even the lowliest animals have, from bumblebees to chimpanzees.

He warned, though, that artificial intelligence purely driven by goals could have its consequences.

He gave an example of a robot-driving-AI developed at Honda Research. The robot car was designed to learn how to run the circuit in the most efficient, fastest way. Then, by accident, it ran into one of the barriers and smashed through the track walls...

"The car made a mistake once and bumped into a wall. Then, it broke through the wall, made a turn, and ended up finishing the course quicker. In later runs, that artificially intelligent car started hitting the walls deliberately."
He concluded,

"When we follow our instincts to simply satisfy our desire, that's when it becomes dangerous. That's where savagery comes from."
What happens when computational knowledge surpasses that of humans? he asked.

 "If we give only computers intelligence greater than that of a human, and give them a goal that they can only use their intelligence to achieve, then we'll see them doing the same thing that the car earlier did: breaking free to reach their goal in the shortest distance possible. So, to stop them from breaking free recklessly, I believe it's necessary for computers to have the highest of emotions. Namely, the richness, the kindness, of love for people. This will help computer brains have control."
So, while Son announced last week his passion for kind, gentle robots, he also envisions that emotions can be used to control AI.

Watch the full presentation here

Other memorable quotes:
@1:08:00 Brain-like computer chips can be used with moving motors. When we combine one of these chips with motors in that way, we get robots. Those artificially intelligent robots could be sent to dangerous places like disaster sites after earthquakes or fires. Snake-like robots could be used to slide into tiny spaces to call out "Hey, anyone alive in here?" Then they can communicate with the person in need until help comes." Or maybe we could have robots with the strength of an excavator, but not just robots that dig, but talk.

@1:09:26 In housework and medicine too we will see robots that are both smart and gentle. We don't want doctors to perform surgery on us just to mechanically say “Hang in there.” when we yell “This hurts!” We want artificially intelligent doctors that are kind. In that way, we could have robots that are gentle towards people but also have incredible intelligence and strength. Robots of various sizes and shapes will appear. 

@1:10:25 The best robot companies won’t necessarily be the ones that make the best robot “muscles” in the manner of a car manufacturer. Components such as motors will be easily made in a factory. The most difficult part will be the part that tells the muscles what to do. The part with intelligence. The part that does the thinking and feeling. SoftBank will continue to follow this idea with the information revolution.

@1:12:30 Intelligent, gentle robots would not be harmful, they’d probably be more gentle than humans. With them we can probably create an even better society together. We at SoftBank want to make that happen. We are not science fiction makers. We do not write novels. We want to make it a reality. We want them to be gentle, feeling, and through the information revolution, we want to help everyone. We want to spread the use of brain computers to make people happy.

@1:13:20 In 300 years there won’t just be one robot or appliance with a brain computer in each house. There will be 10 or 100. Maybe we will work together with these robots to achieve things that humanity has never experienced. To solve problems that have been beyond our abilities. Maybe together we will be able to cure unknown viruses, combat terrorism, protect people against meteorites and great earthquakes and towering tsunami. Together maybe we can solve these problems that humanity has not yet succeeded at doing alone.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Can music convey a personality?

I recently tried out Beau Sievers' super-cool Bouncing Ball software. It generates both – you guessed it – an animated bouncing ball, and also music to accompany its movements. By changing around 5 parameters, you can try and get it to match an emotion or mood.

How does it work? Well, you choose the music clip's speed, irregularity, consonance (i.e. major or minor), pitch range, and probability of making upwards or downward sequences. There is no set score – the software chooses the next note and timing based on probabilities.

Example: "Cheerful" parameter settings

Now, I'm wondering if these 5 parameters can convey not just emotions, but personality types as well. I'm hoping to contribute to Julien Richard's NaoBrain project.

Here are a few attempts. Let me know what you think!

Cheerful: happy, bright, optimistic and positive.
Cute: like a toddler, infantile, a bit unsure
Kind: a caregiver, like Mary Poppins!
Machine: your typical machine
Sarcastic: dry and ironic, like House
Serious: formal, butler-like

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why Designing an Algorithm is like Designing a Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

What is an algorithm? In a world where understanding code and technology is becoming essential, I'd like to offer this –perhaps obvious–analogy.

Algorithms are like Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes.

An algorithm is a set of steps to solve a problem, while trying to minimize or maximize something. A recipe is a set of steps to solve the problem of "I'm hungry!" while fitting your constraints.

An algorithm has input, procedures, and output. A recipe has ingredients, recipe steps, and a finished dish.

There can be many different algorithms to do the same thing. There can be tons of sorting algorithms, just like there can be a billion Chocolate Chip Cookie recipes on

Algorithms try to optimize for different scenarios. They try to minimize space and cost, or maximize speed, or elegance.

Recipes also try to optimize for different things. You can maximize speed, because you want to eat cookies NOW. You can try minimize space, and make it all in one bowl. You can try and make it resource-non-intensive, because you're lazy. You can try to make it really beautiful, because you enjoy the look as much as the taste. Or you can maximize deliciousness while minimizing calories. A multiparameter optimization!

You can optimize all these things, but it’s up to you, the algorithm designer–the cook–to decide which metric is important to YOU.

Designing an algorithm also requires iterative testing. You can try combining different methods, and must check the result and tweak parameters until you think it works well. Sometimes you just throw it all out if it's a mess and start over. When making a recipe, you can combine steps from different recipes, lick the spoon, and tweak ingredient amounts and until you deem it worthy. You, the cook, decide when it's good and ready to serve up to others.

Deciding which problem to solve is also pretty important. You're a chef, you have all these skills–do you use them to cater wedding parties? To open a restaurant? To make designer cupcakes? Which problem in the world do you solve with your skills?

Algorithms are like recipes. We even have cookbooks :) Have I missed anything? 

Whelp, I'm off. Let me know if this has been a totally obvious post. All I know is, these pictures are making me hungry...

Edit: Some more contributions from a friends:

Experience in breaking things can help guide you in your design. Copying an algorithm line-by-line can sometimes get the job done, just like following a recipe word-for-word can give you cookies with no effort. But you don't necessarily understand what you did. What really teaches you, though, is messing up. What? If I replace margarine with butter, then my cookie edges burn? What? My algorithm doesn't work when I use X instead of Y? So experience and trial and error matter. I'd like to suggest that this is how many coders that grow up learning to code, before taking any computer science classes.

However, a theoretical background matters a lot, too. How do you become a master chef? You learn the theory. You know all of your ingredients, their properties, and methods. You know that egg whites contain proteins that break down when salt is added. You know that the point of whipping is not to mix vigorously, but to add air into the mixture, so a flick-lift method is better than a spinning whip. With a theoretical background, you can guess what the outcome will be even before you do it. A good background in computer science and algorithms will give you this.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Empathy towards machines: When communicating less is more

Recently I spoke with a professor regarding empathy and machines. Her mom had a close relationship with her 20-year-old washing machine. If the washing machine acted up, her mom would ask it -- do you need more water? Are there too many clothes? How about I take one piece out and we'll see if you'll start.

This is just what parents do when they interact with their baby. They constantly have to put their mind in the infants shoes. Are you hungry? Did you wet your diaper? Are you just tired? And they try things till it helps.

I think this kind of perspective-taking, active empathy connects us. And maybe this explains why we loved the mysterious R2-D2 so much. We had to put ourselves in its shoes to understand his beeps, his movements. And by doing this curiosity exercise, we cultivated empathy.

As another example, the Fish-Bird robots communicated with people only with simple printouts and movements. People interacted with it for ages. What do you think? Could less be more?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What does "innate" really mean?

A cool story by biologist Dr. Stuart Firestein, from the book This Will Make You Smarter:
"Instinct refers to a set of behaviors whose actual cause we don't know or simply don't understand or have access to; and therefore we call them instinctual, inborn, innate. Often this is the end of the exploration of these behaviors, they are the nature part of the nature-nurture argument [...] and therefore can't be broken down or reduced any further. But experience has shown that this is rarely the truth. In one of the great examples of this, it was for quite some time thought that when chickens hatched and they immediately began pecking the ground for food, this behavior must have been instinctive.
In the 1920s a Chinese researcher named Zing-Yang Kuo made a remarkable set of observations on the developing chick egg that overturned this idea — and many similar ones. Using a technique of elegant simplicity he found that rubbing heated Vaseline on a chicken egg caused it to become transparent enough to see the embryo inside without disturbing it. In this way he was able to make detailed observations of the development of the embryo from fertilization to hatching. One of his observations was that, in order for the growing embryo to fit properly in the egg, the neck is bent over the chest of the body in such a way that the head rests upon the chest just where the developing heart is encased. As the heart begins beating the head of the chicken is moved in an up-and-down manner that precisely mimics the movement that will be used later for pecking the ground. 
Thus the "innate" pecking behavior that the chicken appears to know miraculously upon birth has, in fact, been practiced for more than a week within the egg."
The book's contents are all available online.

Books on Robots and Emotions

Are you interested in reading up on robots and emotions?

Here are some of the books I've come across while writing my thesis. I've put an "easy-to-read" rating on each one. The more stars, the more textbook-like it is, with research and modeling -- but it might be harder to dive into if you're a beginner.

The books with one ★ are easiest to read to get a quick overview of the field.
Books with ★★ are more comprehensive, and still readable.
Books with ★★★ are a compendium of papers from different researchers. Your mileage may vary.

In order of recommendation from me:

How to build an Emotional Robot
★★ Designing Sociable Robots, Cynthia Breazeal

Emotions for Human-Computer Interaction
★ Affective Computing, Rosalind Picard
★★★ Blueprint for Affective Computing, Klaus Scherer et al.

Artificial Intelligence based on Emotions
★★★Who Needs Emotions? The Brain Meets Robot, Jean-Marc Fellous and Michael Arbib

What are Emotions? Why do we need them?
★★ Descartes Error, Antonio Damasio

Emotion Design for Interfaces
★ Design for Emotion, Trevor Van Gorp
Emotional Design: Why we love or hate everyday things, Donald Norman (Last chapter is on robots)

Emotions, Personality - Faking It
★ The Media Equation, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass (Only partly mentions emotions)

Social Implications of Emotional Robots
★★ Alone Together, Sherry Turkle [Warning: This book is very critical of robots with emotions.]

...and just a really well-edited book that can give you a fresh perspective on emotions. I love this book:

Emotion in Music
★★★Handbook of Music and Emotion, Patrik Juslin and John Sloboda