Health

Computer triumphs over humans at reading pain

Computer triumphs over humans at reading pain
The new computer software can help with patients with depression and children who are too young to communicate that they are in pain. PHOTO: THINKSTOCK
Software could supplement or replace lie detectors, and serve as diagnostic aids for doctors
Published: 4:12 AM, April 30, 2014
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NEW YORK — How well can computers interact with humans? Certainly computers play a mean game of chess, which requires strategy and logic, and Jeopardy!, in which they must process language to understand the clues (and buzz in with the correct question). But in recent years, scientists have striven for an even more complex goal: Programming computers to read human facial expressions.

The practical applications could be profound. Computers could supplement or even replace lie detectors. They could be installed at border crossings and airport security checks. They could serve as diagnostic aids for doctors.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have written software that not only detected whether a person’s face revealed genuine or faked pain, but did so far more accurately than human observers.

While other scientists have already refined a computer’s ability to identify nuances of smiles and grimaces, this may be the first time a computer has triumphed over humans at reading their own species.

“A particular success like this has been elusive,” said Dr Matthew Turk, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s one of several recent examples of how the field is now producing useful technologies rather than research that only stays in the lab. We’re affecting the real world.”

People generally excel at using nonverbal cues, including facial expressions, to deceive others (hence the poker face). They are good at mimicking pain, instinctively knowing how to contort their features to convey physical discomfort. And other people, studies show, typically do poorly at detecting those deceptions.

In a new study, in the journal Current Biology, by researchers at San Diego, the University of Toronto and the State University of New York at Buffalo, humans and a computer were shown videos of people in real pain or pretending.

The computer differentiated suffering from faking with greater accuracy by tracking subtle muscle movement patterns in the subjects’ faces.

“We have a fair amount of evidence to show that humans are paying attention to the wrong cues,” said Dr Marian Bartlett, a research professor at the Institute for Neural Computation at San Diego and the lead author of the study.

For the study, researchers used a standard protocol to produce pain, with individuals plunging an arm in ice water for a minute (the pain is immediate and genuine, but neither harmful nor protracted). Researchers also asked the subjects to dip an arm in warm water for a moment and to fake an expression of pain.

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