Formalising the unformalisable

Research into affective computing has prompted a question from some in the HCI community about formalising the unformalisable.  This is articulated in this 2005 paper by Kirsten Boehner and colleagues.  In essence, the argument goes like this – given that emotion and cognition are embodied biopsychological phenomena, can we ever really “transmit” the experience to a computer?  Secondly, if we try to convey emotions to a computer, don’t we just trivialise the experience by converting it into another type of cold, quantified information.  Finally, hasn’t the computing community already had its fingers burned by attempts to have machines replicate cognitive phenomenon with very little results (e.g. AI research in the 80’s).

OK.  The first argument seems spurious to me.  Physiological computing or affective computing will never transmit an exact representation of private psychological events.  That’s just setting the bar too high.  What physiological computing can do is operationalise the psychological experience, i.e. to represent a psychological event or continuum in a quantified, objective fashion that should be meaningfully associated with the experience of that psychological event.  As you can see, we’re getting into deep waters already here.  The second argument is undeniable but I don’t understand why it is a criticism.  Of course we are taking an experience that is private, personal and subjective and converting it into numbers.  But that’s what the process of psychophysiological measurement is all about – moving from the realm of experience to the realm of quantified representation.  After all, if you studied an ECG trace of a person in the midst of a panic attack, you wouldn’t expect to experience a panic attack yourself, would you?  Besides, converting emotions into numbers is the only way a computer has to represent psychological status.

As for the last argument, I’m on unfamiliar ground here, but I hope the HCI community can learn from the past mistakes; specifically, being too literal and unrealistically ambitious.  Unfortunately the affective computing debate sometimes seems to run down these well-trodden paths.  I’ve read papers where researchers ponder how computers will ‘feel’ emotions or whether the whole notion of emotional computing is an oxymoron.   Getting computers to represent the psychological status of users is a relative business that needs to take a couple of baby steps before we try and run.

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