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Designing Emotionally Sentient Agents

Designing Emotionally Sentient Agents, illustration

Credit: MDI Digital

Today, people increasingly rely on computer agents in their lives, from searching for information, to chatting with a bot, to performing everyday tasks. These agent-based systems are our first forays into a world in which machines will assist, teach, counsel, care for, and entertain us. While one could imagine purely rational agents in these roles, this prospect is not attractive for several reasons, which we will outline in this article. The field of affective computing concerns the design and development of computer systems that sense, interpret, adapt, and potentially respond appropriately to human emotions. Here, we specifically focus on the design of affective agents and assistants. Emotions play a significant role in our decisions, memory, and well-being. Furthermore, they are critical for facilitating effective communication and social interactions. So, it makes sense that the emotional component surrounding the design of computer agents should be at the forefront of this design discussion.

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Consider the following examples: Personal assistants (PAs) have become ubiquitous in our everyday computing lives. From well-known services like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, or Google Assistant, to chat bots for areas such as customer service and training, consumers are familiar with the concept of a computerized PA. We argue that for a PA to truly become valuable to the user, it must be natural to interact with and engaging. How do we design a PA that is liked, fun, and easy to work with, and most importantly, trustworthy? Several researchers have shown that an assistant that can sense a user's social cues and affective signals along with her context, and respond appropriately, is valued more, considered more intelligent, and creates a greater desire by the user to interact with it.4,17


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