MACHINES which respond to their owners’ emotions may seem like science fiction fantasy.
But, while the ‘living’ androids portrayed in the blockbuster film I, Robot may never be built, one Lothians firm has developed an "emotion sensor" which could help cars of the future make better drivers out of us.
The computer software - which could soon be used in Toyota cars - can take steps to tackle potential road rage and drowsiness. The system works by monitoring the driver’s speech for signs of certain types of behaviour and taking appropriate action.
If it detects drowsiness, for instance, through signs such as quiet, flat speech, it can trigger an alarm or bring up another suitable prompt to rouse the driver. Alternatively, if the voice shows signs of stress, it can take steps to calm the driver down, by over-riding the car’s air-conditioning or playing soothing music.
The company behind the technology, Affective Media, has created a system it believes is as good as humans at detecting emotion. Staff at the Broxburn-based firm are now working with Edinburgh University, Heriot-Watt University and Toyota to create an emotionally-sensitive car.
The technology would be added to a car which already has voice-activated controls, such as a navigation system or CD player.
Vehicles using it could hit the road within two years. Affective Media chief executive Christian Jones said prototypes were being fitted to trial vehicles and claimed the system could be a life-saver.
"Studies show unhappy or angry drivers are more prone to accidents than drivers who are relaxed," he said.
"Our technology will work with any voice recognition software. In the future, more cars will have voice-activated controls. This technology will sample the voice to tell if a person is angry or frustrated and will then act accordingly.
"Creating emotionally responsive machines is an area a lot of different companies have their eye on. As well as Toyota, a number of other car makers have expressed an interest and I would expect to see it introduced in cars within a couple of years."
The in-car system is just one of the applications the company is exploring. Call-centre operators are also working with Affective Media on a system to monitor the emotions of callers and Mr Jones says a system that is 100 per cent accuratecould be used to help emergency services screen bogus callers. At the moment, however, the most practical development of the software is with the car companies.
A spokesman for the AA said that, while the organisation had some reservations, any technology which improved safety on the road was to be welcomed.
"I think the important question will be how it works, and if it does work then it will be a tremendous benefit," he said.
"One concern would be that drivers become so relaxed with this technology that they feel they can push themselves beyond their limits. Would they drive for ten hours because they had this technology watching over them, where before they would have split the journey into two five-hour trips?"
Alun Parry, spokesman for Toyota, said the company planned to test emotion-detecting technology in its experimental "Pod" cars.
"We want a car to respond to the emotion of the driver and, as well as the voice technology, the Pod will monitor the driver’s pulse and could act to slow the car if it senses that the driver is being erratic or going too fast," he said.