Catherine Pelachaud builds fake people. Working at the Paris Institute of Technology , she and her team are developing Embodied Conversational Agents or ECAs, an unusual approach to software modelling that may finally give 'agents' on websites the two qualities they both need and consistently lack; empathy and accessibility.
The idea of virtual agents has been around for as long as the web has, indeed, Douglas Adams's seminal 'Hyperland' edition of Horizon featured Tom Baker as Adams's agent who, to the late author's relief, did not automatically take 15%. However, whilst a lot of sites use them, it's all too easy for an agent to not understand a question or command and become nothing more than a web page with an unusually pretty interface.
Pelachaud aims to change that by using webcams to 'train' ECAS to respond to human emotions. The webcams, Pelachaud hopes, will allow the ECAs to begin to learn the difference between a positive and negative reaction in users and in turn allow them to be 'trained' to react to negative messages differently. After all, if a user is frustrated and the agent they're dealing with doesn't respond it's even more frustrating. However, if the agent could recognise the signs of frustration and change its behaviour or even reassure the user through nonverbal signs that would instantly change the playing field of the conversation, diffusing frustration and allowing the problem to be solved. Whilst no one's got a virtual Tom Baker at their beck and call just yet, the advantages are clear for every field from retail to emergency and medical response.
Who knows, maybe some day "Greta", one of Pelachaud's ECAs will meet "E", the digital embodiment of evil being developed at Rensselaer . We can't help but feel "Greta" would be a good influence...