On recognition of facial emotions and its automated reading[hr]

The recognition of facial emotions is, literally, a child’s game. Since very young, all babies learn to distinguish the mood of their parents scrutinizing their faces. They immediately recognize if their parents are happy or angry, if their faces express disgust or surprise. Learning is quick and easy because the reading of facial gestures is a human capacity that seems indelibly etched with the burin genetic. We see faces in clouds, spots and everywhere: that is how our nature is. The brain develops this ability without apparent effort and therefore in general we find relatively easy to detect when a person we know is, for example, concerned.

The scientific study of emotions expressed in the face, initiated by Darwin and continued by neurologists and psychologists, most notably Paul Ekman, with its Facial Action Coding System, has given wings to engineers and researchers to develop some automation with this capacity. Why would a machine not be able to do what a little child does? It would actually be useful in some cases to be able to read an ambiguous, difficult or masked face. Think, for instance, about autistic children or, even closer, about what a face can say in medical diagnosis. The clinic eye, psychological insight and other interpersonal skills have much to do with the ability to read a face. However, incorporating this power into a machine seems a huge challenge.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, one of the advanced centers where free rein is given to the most imaginative research, young engineers are willing to give it a try. One of them is Javier Hernández Rivera, creator of an imaginative Mood Meter installed on campus to gauge the mood of the academic community by measuring the amount and quality of their smiles, and also author of other research related to the recognition of facial emotions. They may not be many researchers, but some believe it is possible to develop inventions like a magic mirror that can detect the mood of those who look into it.

On Sunday May 29 Manuel Vicent wrote in El Pais on airport scanners. «So far, the scanner can only detect the matter, not the spirit. However sensitive, it is not yet able to reach our real luggage, ideas and feelings, what we know, what we have read, dreamed, desired, nor the pleasures that we have provided», he said . Conceivably, a mirror or a scanner will read our mood, our emotions, our ideology… but for now these are only fantasies. It is true that the photo cataloging programs already recognize faces, but this is something much simpler and they are not very reliable either. Even so, there is no doubt that the enthusiasm of young researchers will improve the automatic recognition of facial emotions. This is the course of research and knowledge. However, we do not even know to what extent the face is the mirror of the soul: if what we see in a face is real or a mirage, if another’s or ours emotions are the ones shown in his face.