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Why we shouldn't be bored with our boredom

By Geraldine Bell

Would your life improve if your computer knew when you were having a bad day? Dell has announced that it's working on software that could be incorporated into a headset and be able to tell if its wearer is happy, or sad, frustrated, or bored.

This looks at first sight like a really good idea. The aim is not, presumably, to inform us about our own emotional states, but to convey this information to other people, or to computers that will, with their new-found empathy, start doing the job of other people and suggest a drink, or a nice sit down.

Sure enough, Dell's head of research and development suggests that computer programmes could in future respond to human moods. The technology could, for example, gauge when someone playing a computer game is bored and respond by ratcheting up the tension.

This suggestion presupposes that boredom is a bad thing, which is not necessarily true. Boredom serves a tremendously useful function in getting people to move on to something else. An increasing body of academic research suggests boredom is really important for imagination and creativity and we don't get enough of it.

These days, hardly anyone stares in a bored, contemplative fashion out of the window: we're all focused on our mobiles, worried about missing something on Twitter, or Instagram.

A genuinely useful mood sensor would point out that this is making us anxious and fretful and it's pointless and we should just put the technology down. It's unlikely, though, that this is what they have in mind for it.

We are all broadcasters now, all choosing what to project. And, other than for occasional effect, what we mostly protect is our emotional states – not least because they are just too complicated, too irrational and too hopelessly inarticulate for us to share.

Even if our moods could be easily conveyed, could be reduced to 'happy', or 'sad', what then? What is my computer, or indeed, my boss, going to do about the fact that I'm in a bad mood because it's raining?

On current performance, my boss is going to look embarrassed and my computer is going to send me some irritating ad based on something I once looked at in the course of my work.

It has been incontinence pads a lot recently. Give me a semi-functional husband any day.

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