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Emotional Coding: Training AI to recognize human emotions

Welcome to this week’s Deep-fried Dive with Fry Guy! In these long-form articles, Fry Guy conducts an in-depth analysis of a cutting-edge AI development. Today, our dive is about a breakthrough in artificial emotional intelligence. We hope you enjoy! 🙂

A crucial aspect of interacting with others is understanding and predicting their emotional responses. Without this major aspect of social intelligence, many would find us rude, coldhearted, disinterested, or irrelevant. We would be like emotionless robots. Well, on second thought, maybe robots aren’t that emotionless after all …

The “Golden Balls” UK Television Game Show

In a massive breakthrough, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) neuroscientists have made significant progress in the emotional intelligence of AI by developing a computational model capable of accurately predicting human emotions.

Understanding and predicting the emotions of others during social interactions requires a cognitive skill known as the “theory of mind.” These MIT neuroscientists have taken a significant step forward by designing a computational model that closely approximates human observers' emotional intelligence. This cutting-edge model incorporates key elements of the human theory of mind and showcases remarkable, never-before-seen progress in the field of artificial emotional intelligence. The researchers have trained this AI model to successfully forecast a wide range of emotions including joy, gratitude, confusion, regret, and embarrassment. These findings hold tremendous promise for enhancing our understanding of emotional intelligence in artificial systems and could have massive practical applications as well.


The MIT researchers took a deliberate and distinct approach to training their model. Previous studies in this area have focused solely on facial expressions. The MIT team took a different angle, however, emphasizing the importance of anticipating emotional responses even before events occur. This is vital to effective and realistic communication. Rebecca Saxe, Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research and senior author of the study, remarked, “The most important thing about what it is to understand other people’s emotions is to anticipate what other people will feel before the thing has happened … If all of our emotional intelligence was reactive, that would be a catastrophe.”

These researchers used a unique technique to train this AI model by incorporating scenarios from “the prisoner's dilemma.” The prisoner’s dilemma is a well-known game theory situation where individuals must decide whether to cooperate or betray their partner. The MIT team figured that by considering various factors such as desires, expectations, and the presence of observers, the model would be able to accurately predict emotional responses to specific situations. Saxe said, “These are very common, basic intuitions, and what we said is, we can take that very basic grammar and make a model that will learn to predict emotions from those features.”

To simulate this predictive ability, the team utilized scenarios from a British game show called "Golden Balls." This show—designed from the prisoner’s dilemma—involves contestants making decisions to either split or steal a cash prize, leading to diverse and definitive emotional experiences based on the outcomes.

To predict emotions within the game show scenario, the researchers developed three distinct modules within the computational model:

  1. The first module utilizes inverse planning to infer a person's preferences and beliefs based on their actions. Saxe explained, “This is an idea that says if you see just a little bit of somebody’s behavior, you can probabilistically infer things about what they wanted and expected in that situation.” By probabilistically analyzing limited behavioral cues, the model predicts the contestants' motivations and expectations.

  2. The second module compares the actual game outcomes with the players' desired and expected results. This allowed the researchers to cross-check and assess the accuracy of the AI in corresponding expectations and outcomes properly.

  3. The third module predicts the contestants' emotions based on the outcome and their known expectations. Saxe said, “From the data, the model learns that what it means, for example, to feel a lot of joy in this situation, is to get what you wanted, to do it by being fair, and to do it without taking advantage.”

This model surpasses previous artificial emotion prediction models by incorporating crucial factors that the human brain employs when predicting emotional responses. These factors include evaluating a person's emotional reaction based on desires, expectations, material gain, and social perception.

When applied to new datasets from the game-show, the model demonstrated exceptional accuracy in predicting emotions, highlighting its effectiveness and consistency. The researchers emphasize that the model mirrors human social intelligence by mimicking how observers causally reason about others' emotions, rather than attempting to replicate individual emotional experiences. This allows people to alter their own behavior or grammar in a way which will create a desired feeling in the other. These researchers have shown how AI has the potential to showcase a similar ability.


In the future, this team of researchers aim to expand the model's capabilities to make more generalized predictions beyond the game-show scenario. Additionally, they plan to explore models that can predict game outcomes solely based on contestants' facial expressions after the results are announced.

This remarkable breakthrough achieved by the MIT neuroscientists in developing a computational model for predicting human emotions holds immense potential for advancing emotional AI. This research opens up exciting possibilities for improving human-computer interactions and will drive progress in the field of emotional AI.


The potential applications stemming from the ability to decode emotions through AI are profound, encompassing diverse domains. Some of the applications of improved artificial emotional intelligence could involve the following:

Mental Health Applications: Being able to assess an individual’s emotional state is one of the most vital nuances of mental health diagnosis and treatment. This innovation has the potential to provide invaluable insights to mental health professionals, enabling them to deliver personalized treatment plans for their patients. It might also provide the ability for more effective and personalized AI counseling and support.

Human-Computer Interaction: With further research and development in the field of artificial emotional intelligence, AI-powered devices and chatbots might be able to better adapt to the needs, questions, and concerns of human users, making for a more accurate and sensitive experience. It might also allow AI to intuit the needs of human users that they either don’t express or don’t know how to express in plain language.

Marketing Applications: By being able to comprehend and predict the emotional responses of potential customers, more targeted approaches can be made by businesses, politicians, and other organizations which seek to appeal to the emotions of their intended market and create messages that resonate more deeply with their customer base.

Educational Applications: AI systems which are more in tune with human emotions could be used in educational settings to adapt teaching methods and content based on students' emotional states. These models would be able to recognize when students are struggling, frustrated, or disengaged, and offer appropriate support or modify the learning experience accordingly.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) Applications: Immersive technologies like VR and AR thrive on creating authentic emotional experiences for their users. By integrating emotion-decoding AI models, VR and AR experiences could dynamically adapt and respond to the emotional states of users, elevating the overall user experience to unprecedented heights.

These are just a few of the potential practical applications for more emotionally sensitive AI innovations. What the future holds, however, not even the most advanced AI models can predict.