Anyone who has been frustrated asking questions of Siri or Alexa—and then annoyed at the digital assistant's tone-deaf responses—knows how dumb these supposedly intelligent assistants are, at least when it comes to emotional intelligence. "Even your dog knows when you're getting frustrated with it," says Rosalind Picard, director of Affective Computing Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. "Siri doesn't yet have the intelligence of a dog," she says.
Yet developing that kind of intelligence—in particular, the ability to recognize human emotions and then respond appropriately—is essential to the true success of digital assistants and the many other artificial intelligences (AIs) we interact with every day. Whether we're giving voice commands to a GPS navigator, trying to get help from an automated phone support line, or working with a robot or chatbot, we need them to really understand us if we're to take these AIs seriously. "People won't see an AI as smart unless it can interact with them with some emotional savoir faire," says Picard, a pioneer in the field of affective computing.