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Empathetic Robots

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Intent, emotion, nuance, empathy and desire are all traits to describe humans. Endowing robots with human-like features would significantly lessen the gap between humans and robots. Prof Pascale Fung has done just that - by creating Zara the Supergirl, a virtual agent programmed with emotional intelligence to detect meaning and intent during conversations.

Zara represents the first full integration of multimodal emotional perception and response in an artificial intelligence (AI) system. Prof Fung and her team have devised algorithms to teach machines to not only recognize the meaning of words but also comprehend acoustic signals and facial expressions, much like a human would. The more the self-learning agent interacts with people, the more data it gathers to improve its emotional intelligence and empathy.

The potential applications of empathetic machines are endless. In healthcare, the virtual agents will be able to monitor an elderly person who needs assistance in diagnosis of dementia, or act as virtual psychologists to detect stress and depression and subsequently provide counseling services. It can even be used for initial job interviews.

Prof Pascale Fung is Chair Professor of Electronic & Computer Engineering and Director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence Research at HKUST. She is also an elected Fellow of IEEE and a Fellow of the International Speech Communication Association. Beyond research, Prof Fung is the founding chair of the Women Faculty Association at HKUST.


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