One of the most common arguments I hear about why computers will never replace students is that computers can’t give a student a hug. Fair enough but that argument is really that computers can’t establish an emotional attachment to their student. I don’t discount the need for this. All great teachers create a connection. At the very least they need to make the student feel like they are on their side. To be able to do this with a whole class of students is very difficult and I give them major credit for this ability.
Nonetheless, humans have exhibited the ability to create emotional attachments to all sorts of things. Pets are a good example. My two cats mean a great deal to me and I believe they feel something for me too. :) We also develop an affinity for cars, and other sorts of inanimate objects. We refer to ships as “she” in the US Navy and “he” in the Russian Navy.
As you may have noticed, one of the key technology trends I am watching this year is Machine Generated Content or Machine Learning. This is enabled because I believe that sensors and a computer’s ability to understand them are at an inflection point. Computer vision, biometric sensors, audio transcription and many other abilities are rapidly approaching practicalness. We will see this in more and more IT related fields, which as a side effect will start replacing humans in some jobs.
So back to my original topic. Can computers emote with humans? Or at least fake it enough that humans won’t notice the difference? Well, the first thing that has to happen is computers have to be able to read body language and facial expressions. Here is a very cool (and a little creepy) video that shows exactly that. (H/T Gizmodo)
Apparently they are using the current Kinect camera system that comes with the XBox 360 game system. The next gen Kinect coming this fall with XBox One will be 4 times more accurate apparently and be able to track multiple people at once.
Imagine this then on your computer while you are taking online classes. The virtual teacher will be able to tell how the student is doing by paying attention to the same non verbal cues a human teacher will see. The difference is there is a 1 to 1 relationship here. The virtual teacher will be able to suggest the student take a break, explain the lesson again, or even engage in small talk. Will it replace teachers? I’m not sure if this is enough but it is a big step in that direction.