CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (AP) -- Ever wonder if that spouse, friend or co-worker on the other end of the phone is really paying attention? The "Jerk-O-Meter" may hold the answer.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing software for cell phones that would analyze speech patterns and voice tones to rate people -- on a scale of 0 to 100 percent -- on how engaged they are in a conversation.
Anmol Madan, who led the project while he pursued a master's degree at MIT, sees the Jerk-O-Meter as a tool for improving relationships, not ending them. Or it might assist telephone sales and marketing efforts.
"Think of a situation where you could actually prevent an argument," he said. "Just having this device can make people more attentive because they know they're being monitored."
The program, which Madan said is nearing completion, uses mathematical algorithms to measure levels of stress and empathy in a person's voice. It also keeps track of how often someone is speaking.
"It's an academically proven thing," Madan said of the math behind those measurements. "There are a bunch of academic papers published about this."
For now, the Jerk-O-Meter is set up to monitor the user's end of the conversation. If his attention is straying, a message pops up on the phone that warns, "Don't be a jerk!" or "Be a little nicer now." A score closer to 100 percent would prompt, "Wow, you're a smooth talker."
However, the Jerk-O-Meter also could be set up to test the voice on the other end of the line. Then it could send the tester such reports as: "This person is acting like a jerk. Do you want to hang up?"
To test the program, Madan and his MIT colleagues recruited 10 men and 10 women -- all strangers to each other -- and brought them into the lab. The researchers paired off the test subjects, with men only talking to men and women only talking to women, and monitored 200 three-minute conversations about randomly selected topics.
After each conversation, the subjects were asked to rate their level of interest on a scale of one to 10. By measuring the speaking style each person had used in the conversation, Madan was able to predict what score they would give roughly 80 percent of the time.
The study indicated that men and women are interested in conversations for different reasons.
The subject of the chat was more important to men than women, Madan said. "For the women, it was more dependent on who they were talking to and what the mood was like," he added. "It wasn't just about the topic itself."
The researchers also tested the technology at a bar in Cambridge where a group of singles were "speed-dating," rotating through a series of five-minute conversations.
"Mathematically modeling" each person's speaking style let the research team predict whether a speed-dater would agree to a real date. It was a good sign, Madan said, if the speed-daters engaged in "back and forth exchanges," punctuated by "ahas" and "yups."
Frank Guenther, a professor of cognitive and neural systems at Boston University, said there are a host of "non-linguistic" cues, such as pregnant pauses, flat pitch levels and slow speech rates, that indicate boredom or disinterest.
"To me, it sounds like it's great for the entertainment factor," he said of the Jerk-O-Meter. "But I don't think you'll be able to get definitive measurements. There is just too much variability across individuals."
The prototype version of the program runs in Linux on a phone plugged into Voice over Internet service. Once the Jerk-O-Meter is completed, in six months or so, Madan envisions selling it as software that could be downloaded off the Internet -- a potentially useful tool for focus groups, telemarketers and salesmen.
"It sounds pretty cool," said Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications analyst in Atlanta. "But if someone was using it against me, I'd say, `How dare they!"' he added with a laugh.
The Jerk-O-Meter is one of many projects at MIT that aim to make cell phones and other communication devices more "socially aware," said Alex Pentland, director of the Media Lab's human dynamics research group.
Madan and Pentland have formed a company, iMetrico, to commercialize some of these technologies for sales and marketing efforts. But it's too early to say whether the Jerk-O-Meter would be one of them.
"Almost everybody has a cell phone," Pentland said. "They're as powerful as regular computers. There are all sorts of things that can be done with them, but haven't yet. ... They just don't support humans the way they live." Source